Heraclitus wrote that change is the only constant in life. 2500 years later, change is still an epic struggle.
Every company reaches a time when it becomes clear that a well-learned system is no longer serving it well. Such was the case with a large manufacturing firm’s time and attendance systems. New technologies allowed for more efficient and accurate reporting of the employees’ hours and what vacation and sick time they had accrued and used. It seemed like a logical change, so with little advanced warning or preparation, the company made the switch. Then the rebellion started.
Some people never read the series of emails that heralded the change in procedures. Those that did had trouble logging in to the new system. Employees from generations less agile with technology struggled to enter the information required accurately or on time. Younger tech-savvy managers grew impatient and judgmental with those who didn’t understand the need for change and resisted the new process. Tempers, already roiling, exploded when paychecks were delayed because of insufficient information in the new system. Company leaders scrambled to rectify the problems and to calm and reconnect their people.
The best laid plans can go awry when those required to implement the change are unaware, unprepared and uncooperative. Beyond the procedural missteps and errors, unforeseen consequences can result. In this case, an existing gap between generations widened when the technological and managerial abilities of employees were not considered. When the need for change is evident, our best efforts focus on redesigning systems – how we do things. But how much attention do we give to what is poised to derail us – how people are affected by the change and what is required of them to successfully implement it.
The truth is that responses to change are deeply personal. Logically, we know that change is necessary, even essential, to survive and thrive. Emotionally, most of us experience resistance, often when we can’t see our place in the new system. We fear that we will lose something, that we will not be able to adapt, or that we won’t be included or valued. This resistance and fear can range from discomfort to outright pain.
Leaders who fail to acknowledge and address the very human experience that change provokes face daunting and potentially damaging resistance. Fearful and anxious humans do not perform at their best. Sustainable change in any organization requires the understanding, participation, and advocacy of those involved, a level of engagement that requires more than a superficial understanding of the rationale for change. All stakeholders must be able to understand the present moment’s vulnerability and see the future state’s benefit and prosperity and their place in it.
Just as a playwright considers each character’s narrative arc, leaders must tell the whole story of a change process. It is theirs to cast the vision, specific and compelling. It is theirs to explain the obstacles and challenges and to forecast what must be overcome to achieve the new reality. It is theirs to invite each person to find their connection to the quest and to sound a clear call to action, describing the performance required from all involved to ensure success.
Imagine how things could have been different if the leaders of the manufacturing firm had anticipated the many different reactions, needs, and abilities of their employees before changing time and attendance systems. Rather than an email blast explaining the change, what if they’d held a series of meetings that set the course for the change and the benefit it would bring each person? What if, rather than sending an email and hanging some posters in break rooms and on the shop floor that guided people through the new website, managers in each department were trained to teach their people the new technology in short, in-person demonstrations? What if they had offered a small incentive to the first 50 people who logged into the new system? What if leaders had thought as much about engaging the minds and energy of their people as they did about the cost savings the company would achieve?
TAI Group has helped countless leaders and their teams set a course for change, guided not just by data but by the hearts and minds of their people. Our work enables leaders to:
- Acknowledge the emotional responses to change, no matter the size of the change or solid rationale for it.
- Understand the human relationships that exist and how they will be impacted by the change.
- See the arc of the whole journey of the change; the current state, the desired future state, and the obstacles they must overcome to get there.
- Define and successfully communicate the steps in the process to all stakeholders.
- Forge momentum for change by activating the hands that do the work.
- Invite individuals and teams to participate in shaping the new reality.
As important as the strategy and its implementation, leaders, and influencers who think through the path to change from the perspective of the impacted individuals and teams will be able to steward the personal transitions that make the organizational change sustainable.
About the author
Christine Strong is Chief of Staff and Coach for The TAI Group. Chris partners with leaders and teams to discover higher levels of clarity, focus, and action by uncovering the sources of guidance, alignment, and motivation that lie within them.