“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
– André Gide, French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947 (1869-1951)
Our societies constantly change, technology evolves at a fast pace, the market landscape our companies are engaged in undoubtedly transforms… In order to stay competitive, profit-driven companies have to adapt as well and dynamically adjust to their environment (market, competition…), implying sometimes some drastic changes in terms of organization and culture. Managers have then the difficult duty to support their teams navigating those changes, removing as much as possible the staff resistance in order to speed up the transformation for the better (assuming executive management take wise structural decisions for their companies and staff).
Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Reduce Resistance to Organizational Change
Even for the better, changing often means getting out of the routine, sometimes getting out of a comfort zone and adapting to a new environment, a new context, a new way of doing things, which obviously requires a minimum of flexibility to the person experiencing the change.
In 2002, Miller and Rollnick, professor of clinical psychology, attributes the resistance to change to four possible reasons:
- the lack of vision regarding the negative consequences of not changing: it is key to understand and to share openly the short/mid/long terms impacts of not changing to raise the staff awareness of the potential risks for the company and themselves of staying static (eg loss of market share implying lay-out…)
- the personal interest in not changing: because, by definition, changing is synonym of letting things go and in parallel taking new things up, this may result in a motivation gap or even in a personal image discrepancy for the concerned staff (what I’m now asked to do is no longer what I identify myself to, what I’m proud of…). Those gaps must be identified and worked on in order to help the employees to transit smoothly to their new responsibilities.
- the lack of vision about the benefit of changing: if the staff cannot get a clear representation of the benefit of changing, they will obviously be more reluctant to change. Why learning new methods or changing habits, colleagues, roles if one cannot imagine the expected added value? It is there important to help the employees to identify to the new structure by stating clearly the expected positive outputs of the change.
- the adequacy between the change hurdles and obstacles and the available resources for changing: even though one may fully understand what calls for a change, one may feel not capable to go through it. In other words, one needs to understand the expected difficulties while changing and at the same time one must be convinced of having enough resources (knowledge, time, support…) to overcome those challenges.
What does it teach to managers undergoing structural or organizational changes?
- communicating clearly and repeatedly to the team at every stage of the change on the four points above is crucial. Your staff must embody the reason motivating the change to adhere to the decision and to act pro-actively. Also make sure to communicate the metrics based on which the success of the change will be evaluated.
- communicating at the individual level is also strongly required. Concerns and reactions to change obviously differ from one person to the other: some may see opportunities to grow whereas other may consider it as a threat to their stability. Ask penetrating questions to understand what is at stake for each one of your employees and help them to formulate answers to the four questions. In other words, make sure to answer the question “so what?” for your staff: you need to make clear what the change will personally bring to the person experiencing it and also what it means for them / the team / the department / the company. You may look for the support of a “neutral” participant like the Human Resources team, an external consultant, another team leader not directly involved in the change in order to help identifying the difficulties for each individual and to help conveying your message through.
- not only you should over-communicate but it is also key to engage directly your peers, managers and teams by asking to share their concerns and ideas around the four points. Ask them for suggestions to help going through the change for themselves and the team, highlighting as well the interdependencies related to the change within the company and informing the other teams of the possible consequences.
- make sure to identify “quick wins” while implementing your change and act on those ones first. Then work on your “core wins” that you can identify using a simple Pareto distribution. Celebrate success in reaching your critical milestones. Keep in mind that there is nothing better than success in getting a change accepted…
- if further adjustments are required while undergoing the change, be honest and communicate around those, always focusing on the four points above and the related “so what” for your staff.
- exercise 1: in order to understand the possible resistance to change of your staff, ask the following questions and facilitate the thinking process by reformulating the answers.
- What are the short-term and mid-term benefits that you can expect from this change?
- Which drawbacks do you foresee in going through this change? According to you, how can they be attenuated or removed?
- In a short- and mid-term perspective, what are the benefits of not changing?
- What are the risks of not changing?
- From your point of view, do you feel capable undergoing this change or do you miss anything to support the transition?
- exercise 2: identify your “quick wins”. When undergoing a structural change, place your expected deliverables and outputs on a matrix distributed between the effort required (time, resource, money…) -classified in high/medium/low- and the expected impact to the organization -classified in high/medium/low-. Your “quick wins” are obviously the ones located in the quadrant “low effort” / “high impact” of your matrix.
In order to be the least disruptive possible and to maximize the staff commitment, structural and organizational changes need to be thoroughly worked on at both the individual and team levels by the manager in charge. First, answers to the four core questions: “negative consequence of not changing”, “interest in not changing”, “benefit of changing”, “adequate resource to support the change” must be clearly identified. Then, it is crucial to repeatedly communicate on those answers when undergoing the change, while fostering creative, collective thinking to overcome hurdles arising from the transition. Success of the change will equally depend on the manager’s discipline to lead it as on the staff buy-in and pro-active engagement to execute it…
Last Revision: 2015 March 28