‘We’re going through a lot of change at the moment’, is a common refrain. We hear it all the time. The pace of change might be faster nowadays, but organisational change has always been with us. In this short article we explore the problem of change paralysis, the energising potential of change and the importance of understanding how change is perceived.
Whether it’s a restructure, a relocation or a recently arrived Chief Executive with a new ‘vision’, change is always on the agenda. Organisations have been talking about change - and the challenges of implementing it - for decades.
What is it about implementing change which obsesses us so? Why does it seem to paralyse organisations? Why do we assume that people will resist it, when ballot boxes around the world seem to indicate that people actively vote for it? Why can’t we be enthused, energised and empowered by it?
Change is not an excuse for inaction
The phrase ‘we’re going through a lot of change at the moment’ is frequently used to explain inaction. It’s why a decision has had to be put off; it’s why a commitment hasn’t been kept; it’s why the original plan has been shelved.
The words ‘at the moment’ are intriguing and nearly always used in relation to change - as if this is a temporary state of flux which has to be survived before normal order is restored. And yet, as we’ve seen, change is with us constantly. The idea that once ‘the change’ is over, normality will resume is delusional. Delaying other perfectly sound plans simply because ‘we’re going through a lot of change at the moment’ is wrong-headed. I’ve seen money wasted and valuable time squandered due to change paralysis. Yes, there are times when some things must be affected by change but it is the total department-wide or even organisation-wide paralysis, when change is cited as a reason for inaction, that must be questioned. Might people sometimes just hide behind change as an excuse for not getting things done?
I saw a cartoon recently which showed a crowd of people eagerly putting up their hands in answer to the question, ‘Who wants change?’ Underneath was a second image of the same crowd, responding to the follow-up question, ‘Who wants to change?’ Everyone was shuffling about looking at their feet. This paradox of people wanting change - evidenced by people frequently voting for it - but not wanting to change themselves, needs to be understood when implementing organisational change. We tend to assume that change at work will be resisted because it’s often linked with what is perceived as ‘bad news’. But it is not change per se that people don’t like. Otherwise, they would refuse a pay rise, never move to a new house and wouldn’t go on holiday desiring a ‘change of scene’.
So, if people don’t resist change in and of itself, we need to understand what is going on when we encounter resistance to the change we want to make. The perception of change is everything. How does it affect me? What impact does it have on the way I do my job? What are the upsides and the downsides, so far as they impinge on me? Senior management in an organisation can decide a change strategy but that doesn’t implement it. It’s the line managers and the people in the frontline who make it happen. And we need to understand how it looks from their perspective and ask questions to find out what they don’t - or do - like about a particular change which should inform the way we handle any resistance.
Change as an energiser
I recently visited a healthcare client in the north of England where two organisations had merged, triggering the inevitable ‘C’ word! Yes, there had been a restructure and yes, some people had been made redundant. But the prevailing atmosphere was one of upbeat and energetic enthusiasm. Key people involved in implementing the changes believed in the benefits to be gained from them and promoted a positive message of optimism in the future.
A retail organisation facing the difficulties encountered by many major retailers at the moment explained to me how four regions had been reduced to three with the inevitable turmoil associated with such a downsizing. However, management had bravely let it be known that if individual employees weren’t happy with the changes and weren’t 100% committed to embracing and living the transformation, they should consider their positions. Carping employees, however genuine the grievance, are like a cancer in an organisation and this retailer wanted to be rid of negative sentiment. The aim was to embrace, energise and enthuse remaining staff to make a success of the restructure.
A third organisation in the education sector I visited recently is preparing to relocate to an entirely new campus. With this enormous change comes a new IT system, new hotdesking arrangements and a host of new ways of working. Managing this transition is a big task but one that is being embraced with realism, optimism and a certain amount of excitement. They are ambitious but aware of the potential pitfalls and are managing the move sensitively, sharing information and engaging the enthusiastic support of their employees.
Change for good
If it is to last and be successful, change needs to be a force for good. It’s how we manage the transition in any change programme that matters. How it’s perceived, how messages are communicated and how people understand their individual role in the change, are all crucial to successful implementation. Everyone needs to be clear about the reasons for change and they need to believe in them. They need to know that changes are being implemented fairly and that their line manager is committed to them. Mixed messages sabotage any proposed change.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We know what we like to do and how we like to do it. So if the status quo is to be challenged, we need to understand the need for change, we need to want to change ourselves, and we need to believe in the benefits.
Video learning about change
There are three WATCH & GO® videos on the topic of implementing, managing and embracing change.
- What To Say When Someone Rejects Change is a four-minute video about understanding and addressing the reasons why people oppose change
- Making Change Happen is an in-depth drama-based video exploring the role of the first-line manager in implementing changes
- Change: What Managers Must Do is about the key role of managers in transforming a change plan into reality.
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