Despite Kotter’s 8 steps, Bridges’ 3 phases, ADKAR’s 5 stages and Lewin’s 3 actions, the literature is overflowing with examples of failed organisational change projects and the trails of destruction left in their wake. Why?
“Organisations don’t change… People do”.
So, no matter how lean your thinking, how strategic your restructuring, how good your process re-engineering, or how innovative your system design, change efforts will come to nothing if our people aren’t supported to change their behaviour. And often that means more than providing them with information or training – it means helping people to adapt, by facilitating a shift in the thinking, beliefs and assumptions which keep them wedded to the old ways.
We know communication is critical to the success of a change project, but what does this mean in reality? At the strategic level we need a detailed stakeholder engagement plan, a comprehensive training plan and some inspirational sermons from the CEO about burning platforms and melting icebergs. But this is not where the real business of change takes place – the engine room of change is fuelled by the day to day conversations between the Executive Team and their senior managers, between the senior managers and their team leaders, and between the team leaders and the front line staff who report to them.
It’s in these conversations that staff discover and process the reality of the change and how it will impact on them. And it’s in these conversations that staff have the opportunity to have their personal concerns addressed, their questions answered, their frustrations aired, their fears disclosed and their ideas heard. I believe these conversations are the real heart of organisational change.
So, do our leaders and managers feel skilled and motivated to engage in the kind of conversations that will support their people to understand, engage with and adapt to the changes expected of them? A spate of recent horror stories from my clients has led me to believe that perhaps not. Here’s a few examples:
- My client was emailed by his manager (on the weekend) asking him to include some data in an attached executive paper – the paper included a recommendation, which my client was oblivious to, that his job was to be redundant in a proposed re-structure
- An operations executive, who knew her job was to be abolished as part of a shift in organisational strategy, had been told she would be redeployed into a newly created stakeholder engagement role. In an executive meeting to discuss the proposed new roles, the HR manager inadvertently distributed the wrong version of the new structure document, on which the CEO had handwritten the names of his preferred occupants against all of the executive roles – my client’s name was not on the chart!
- A service delivery manager found out, whilst watching an all-staff video message from the CEO, that the program he’d successfully led for three years was to be abolished due to lack of alignment with a change initiative
- A learning and development manager found out her full year budget had been slashed by half, when her manager made an off-hand remark about perceived program credibility at a team meeting.
These examples are careless and disrespectful at best, but threatening, anxiety-provoking and disengaging at worst. Is it any wonder we see resistance to change if this is how it’s managed?
If we want change projects to succeed, we need to give our leaders, particularly our middle managers, the information, the tools, the skills and the confidence to have what can be challenging and emotionally charged one on one conversations with their staff. If you’re a manager, and this is not what you signed up for, you may want to re-evaluate whether you’re in the right role, since leading people through change is a crucial and ongoing leadership competency.
If you’re up for this important and satisfying work, keep in mind the following tips:
- Share information about change directly and personally with the people who are impacted most by it – that means face to face, one on one, not in a team meeting, public forum, via email, or (god-forbid) a text message
- Prioritise your conversations – communicate with those most impacted by the change first, and more frequently
- Tell your staff as much as you know about the why, when and how of change, as soon as you can – don’t wait for something big to announce or for the glossy presentation from the Comms team before you start your conversations
- If you don’t know something, communicate that you don’t know, don’t just not communicate – faced with an uncertain future and a communication void, staff will fill in the gaps with their own interpretation, which could be way off the mark
- Show empathy during your conversations – practice recognising and acknowledging what the staff member may be feeling as a result of the actual or perceived impact of the change. Fear, anxiety, grief, frustration, exhaustion and self-doubt are just some of the legitimate feelings that staff may be openly expressing or doing their best to hide
- These conversations are not just a channel for you to convey information, but a critical opportunity for you to engage deeply with your staff member about their concerns and fears as well as their hopes, ideas and expectations – remember, you have two ears and one mouth – listening is just as important, if not more so, than talking.
Whether you’re leading change, implementing change or being impacted by change, start talking about it directly, openly and constructively, and let’s get to the real heart of successful change.
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