Change management is a popular topic – put it into Amazon and you get over 50k hits. There’s no shortage of advice and yet still we struggle and stumble when it comes to change. Why?
Personally, I think that people know that change is hard, but they don’t know how to tackle it, or they don’t have the time or resources to do so. So they press on regardless, in the sure and certain hope that “it’ll be fine”, people will “just get on with it” and “change is the new normal”.
If you are responsible for implementing change in the workplace, I offer a few thoughts that may be worth considering.
- Resistance to change is to be expected
Resistance isn’t a bad thing – it’s just a fact of life. We resist things we don’t understand, that don’t make sense, that are being imposed on us. Resistance is to be expected – people aren’t necessarily resistant to be bloody minded, they may simply not have worked out what’s in it for them, and therefore need some support in order to understand what the change is really all about so they can figure out the trade-offs for them.
One of the best things in any change programme is communication – but let‘s be clear about that word. What I don’t mean is “telling” people about the change. Communication must be two-way – a dialogue between parties, designed to answer questions, listen to concerns, assist in the assimilation of the truth of the change and what it could mean for each person involved – at a level of detail that they require.
- It takes time to change habits
Not all change takes a long time – changes we make for ourselves, that we are enthusiastic about and motivated to make happen don’t necessarily take ages. But changes that are imposed on us take a lot longer to grapple with. Changing behaviour and workplace practices require a change in habits – which are notoriously difficult to break.
Our brains are wired for safety – they keep us out of harm’s way by predicting outcomes based on past experience. Faced with a new activity / new way of doing things, we may not have much on which to base a prediction of what is going to happen. Hence it is easier to try to avoid the new way and stick with the safe option. It also takes a lot less energy – habits require less thought and brainpower (as an example, consider anything you do without having to THINK about – and then imagine what it would be like to do that differently – how much more energy it would require).
If we recognise how difficult change can be, we manage our own expectations about how long it will take people and how much support they will need.
- You may not have the power to get people to change
At the beginning of any workplace change project – a critical requirement is to discover who has the power to drive the behavioural and cultural change. Without power and leadership, it simply won’t happen. You may be leading the initiative, but people won’t change for you if you aren’t important in their world. They need to understand why their leaders want them to change – what’s in it for the organisation (why are we doing this?) so that they can start to identify potential wins for them.
If you don’t have the power to deliver change in your organization – find out who does and build relationships with them or with those who are known influencers of those people.
- People need to find out “what’s in it for me…”
Yes, they also need to know what the benefits will be for the organisation, their department / team but when it comes down to it – we all want to know “what’s in it for me” – whether we are the most senior or junior member of the organisation. This isn’t about people being selfish or self-centred, it is simply that we must make sense of the change in our own context.
The wins will be different for everyone – and we cannot simply tell others what the benefits will be, but we can help them explore the options and consider trade-offs (i.e. “I’m losing x, but I’m gaining y – I can live with that”).
Through dialogue people also understand fully what the change is – not what they thought it was, or what they’ve heard on the grapevine that it’s all about. Getting to the truth is often one of the longest battles – the rumour mill works far faster than most change management programmes and people are very willing to believe the false rumours / bad news!
- Change management is an action sport!
It requires a lot of activity, energy, persistence and confidence. In workplace change management, we plan a range of activities to engage with people on their terms, when they are ready. Most people need to receive each message several times for it to take hold. They won’t all respond to the same communication methods, and they will certainly need to hear some messages from specific individuals for the message to become real.
Leadership support is vital, not forgetting that leaders are yet another group that need to go on the change journey – to work out “WIIFM”.
Finally, remember that if nothing changes, nothing changes! If you know that your organisation’s approach to change management hasn’t been successful in the past, it’s destined to repeat the same mistakes unless there is a recognition that things need to be done differently. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many organisations stick to “the way we do things round here” even when implementing change!
Author: Karen Plum, Director of Research & Development, Advanced Workplace Associates