As we work to bring the human factor into the change management process, it’s important to
look at the term itself. ‘Change management’ is widely used by organizations to describe
activities and practices associated with transition. I’m being literal when I say widely – I googled
the term today and got 4,620,000,000 results. These numbers are likely inflated because of the
pandemic but change management is a critical business function even in calmer times. The
language we use influences our thinking, and the term change management assumes we can
mechanize our way through change. Operating from this place, many change efforts become
too reliant on process with little focus on the human beings going through the change, and the
results are not optimal. Based on my work in numerous change efforts, here are three watch
outs to look for in your own organization.
Describing her manager’s insistence on daily video calls, Dawn said, “It drives me crazy. Every
morning we all sit awkwardly “checking in”, regardless of other pressures. My boss shares
random tips on working from home – we think he only holds these calls to make sure we’re
actually working. Recently, he called me out on being quiet, so I said I was frustrated and felt
the meetings were pointless. After the meeting he said I needed to be more of a team player. I
guess playing the game is more important than getting actual work done.”
Holding group meetings to communicate key change messages is common, but it can be
ineffective when executives use this forum for one-way communication. In an effort to deliver
the “right” message they miss the chance to listen and learn about how people are really
feeling, and that disconnect creates more confusion and anxiety. Another stumbling block is
when people’s emotional reactions are viewed as resistance about change instead of as insights
on the change itself. When leaders suppress honest reactions, they lose valuable information
about how to improve the change process. It only takes one person being rebuked for the
broader team to develop a “buy-in façade” where they exhibit supportive behaviors (head
nodding, smiling, etc.) and then take oppositional actions outside of meetings. Instead of
working to improve the change roll-out, some employees buy in, a few actively resist and are
often marginalized, and others leave the firm in frustration.
Lowering Confidence and Competence
Along with creating dysfunction in the broader team, reacting punitively to emotional
responses can also erode people’s confidence and competence. Dawn’s boss’s strategy was to
counsel her on “acceptable” meeting behavior rather than explore why she felt the way she
did. To be fair, handling the volume of feelings involved in leading change is challenging and
executives are largely unsupported in this task. But, when emotions aren’t acknowledged and
accepted, employees question their ability to succeed in the new environment. I have seen
first-hand how acute this self-doubt can be for high achievers who view lapses in perfection as a
shameful experience. The fact is, organizational change requires learning new behaviors and
adopting new mindsets. That means a natural dip in performance will happen as people adapt to the “new normal”. Leaders who focus more on task and production miss the chance to boost
confidence, which would have the positive impact of shortening the performance dip.
Change management is not a clean, prescribed process – it’s driven by the reactions of
individuals. But, erring on the side of efficiency, some leaders cut out engaging a full
representation of those individuals. It’s so important to involve change recipients in the shape
and execution of a major shift, because not doing so can lower trust in leadership, increase
resistance, and even result in failure of the transformation. One caveat: People are quick to
observe the disconnect between what senior managers say (espoused values) and do (values in
action). When change leaders engage people, it must be authentic and meaningful. Simply put,
leaders who openly live their values during times of change will earn the trust of their people.
From my experience as a participant in large scale change and as a consultant to executives
who lead change efforts, the best outcomes lie in combining the strengths of traditional change
management on processes and operations with mindsets and practices focused on the human
factor of transitions. My next posts will focus on how to do just that but, for now, here are
some prompts to help you assess the quality of your organizational change approach.
- How am I designing for the impact on people?
- How are my people feeling about the change? What data tells me this?
- What is my leadership team doing to help people feel more confident and supported?
- How is it working?
- What behaviors are we modeling as a leadership team? What messages does this send to our people?