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?