Lead effectively & signpost your employees through change

Written by
Changeboard Team

14 Jun 2010

14 Jun 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Change can create a negative impact

Adapting is exactly what many organisations are doing even as you read this; they're adapting and changing how they operate; even changing what their vision, values and goals are. Getting through the recession and beyond becomes the top priority and many things companies used to hold dear just arent given the same consideration as previously.

All well and good, you might say. Its probably wise that organisations are looking at how they could better manage themselves; leaner and meaner might make for more efficient, competitive businesses.

What we have witnessed over the past eighteen months are more mergers and acquisitions, more redundancies, more downsizing and outsourcing. The need to survive is very galvanising. However, the trouble with all this change is that it can cause huge stress and anxiety within organisations for a number of reasons.

How might change affect employees?

Change by its very nature breeds uncertainty. People become wary if too much change happens around them; uncertainty breeds rumours; rumours breed more uncertainty. 

During this uncertainty, the decision-makers tend to spend all their attention and focus on the logistics of survival or the mechanics of their mergers or acquisitions. What they tend to ignore is the impact any change will have on the majority of their employees. They dont mean to, but people on the receiving end can feel ignored, taken for granted and marginalised.

Thats when the very opposite of what the leadership intended happens: staff get demotivated and productivity can and usually does drop, sometimes dramatically. 

Changes that are undertaken are usually imposed on employees and when there is imposed change there's usually a concomitant loss of trust and a suspicion of the leaderships motives. This is true in all walks of life: people for the most part resent imposed change and immediate reactions include feeling disempowered, defensive and critical.

This all sounds very dramatic, doesnt it? For the people experiencing the big emotions, change can indeed feel dramatic. This is what managing change is all about; facilitating a process that gets the majority of employees on board so that productivity and morale dont suffer.

Communication - key to effective change

Of all the difficulties we have seen in organisations around change, lack of communication ranks at the top. While the leadership is working out what to do, there's usually a deathly silence coming from their offices and computers. Rarely is a word mentioned of what the plans are going to be until the changes are presented as a fait accomplis from on high. At that point it can feel like a take it or leave it proposition (well, it usually is).

While all that silence is emanating from the leadership, people are then making up what they think is going on they might be half right, but rumours and gossip abound and anxiety is rife.

If youre leading change in your organisation, you don't have to tell everybody everything, but if you want to bring people on board you have to let your employees know whats going on and why its going on, even if it means announcing that there may very well be redundancies in the pipeline.

Keeping information back infantilises your employees. Keeping them informed treats them as mature, equal participants in what is going on in the organisation. A comprehensive overview and regular updates will reap huge Benefits later on.

Listen to the views of employees

Some companies seem to have an allergic reaction to asking staff for their ideas and input while big changes are being made.

However, hand-in-hand with keeping staff informed, is to hear what ideas and suggestions they have about the future of your (and their) company. They are stakeholders after all, and in our experience, people at every level of an organisation have useful and sometimes hugely innovative ideas around change.

Not only does listening bring out the creativity in most people, it helps engage them and get their commitment during the early stages of the process rather than trying to haul them and their resistance on board once all the decisions have been made.

Empower employees to give honest feedback

Having made the tough decisions, most people in leadership positions just want to get on with things and move on to the next stage. They can get very impatient with employees who are angry, hurt, uncertain and stressed. 

Let them feel what they feel. Its no good expecting everyone to be positive; even if most of them could benefit in the long term from the changes being made, they simply may not be convinced the changes are a good thing. If you impose change, you then impose a demand that people be optimistic it will make things worse. Allow employees to have their anxieties, anger and cynicism.

By showing some empathy for where your employees are at, you give them space to have their emotions without holding on to them.

Role model change from the start

Your ability to facilitate someone elses change comes from how well you facilitate your own change and make it visible within your organisation. Too often we have seen change management programmes where those in charge act as though everything is completely under control and running smoothly. This doesnt help anyone. 

No one handles change with complete ease and struggle-free. Yet that type of behaviour is often what is displayed. This makes it doubly hard for others to handle, for not only are they tasked with incorporating change, they have role models who act as though its a piece of cake.

Truly being an agent for change means displaying your own vulnerabilities, struggle and difficulties, and yes, even failures. It means sharing information and making public the process you and others have been and are going through. 

Create a climate of change in your organisation

One reason change becomes so difficult is that people get used to the way things are, and that makes sense because we are pattern making beings who get comfortable with routine extremely quickly. If you create an environment where some change is the norm, then when the bigger changes come along, its not so traumatic or disturbing. 

You will still probably shake people up when the big stuff comes along, but it wont be nearly as stressful if people are used to moving the furniture which is what we do at Impact Factory. Sometimes we literally move the furniture, but often it will be changes in processes, the lunch we order on company development day, the photos we have on the website. Small stuff.

Regular changes dont have to be big or earth-shattering, but they do have to involve as many people as possible so everyone feels they have a stake in whats going on.

Support & encourage employees through the change

One of the major reasons people resist change is because they dont think they will be able to do it. Theyve been working just fine, thank you. They know where they stand, they know whats expected of them, they have their routines and ways of working. With change, people often come up against their limiting beliefs to do with their abilities, and their confidence is undermined.

This, in turn, can lead to a fear of being humiliated; of not coming up with the goods just when they are most required. And people will do just about anything to avoid humiliation. A bit of reassurance that you know theyre up to the job, or will get support to ensure theyre up to the job, will go a long, long way to calming anxieties and easing the fear of humiliation.

Giving people things they know they can handle builds confidence and encourages buy-in. Its also a lot easier than trying to get them to change their attitudes wholesale.

How can leaders manage change effectively?

Great leadership is about holding your nerve while calming everyone elses. 

Managing other peoples change is keeping a balance between the overall needs of the organisation and the individual needs of the people in it.