The Permanent State Of Change

A common trigger of disengagement and frustration at work is the constant mismanagement of change.

Almost every year organisations go through some form of re-organisation, or shift in strategy, unexpected redundancies, and inevitably new slogans employees are expected to understand and adopt.

Change is the only constant. And as long as change is the only constant, then organisations desperately need effective change management. 

There are some big myths, misconceptions, and miscommunications when it comes to creating positive change inside the workplace. These myths undermine the effectiveness of change, and leave the organisation with a disappointing result. Indeed, this is a great shame since the intention behind change is usually right; it’s just the execution that falters.

Through our experience, we have honed in on three insights that have helped us to change, change management.

INSIGHT #1: 
HUMANS ARE EXPERTS AT CHANGE

People are always changing. Every minute, every hour, every day. As consumers, the way we interact, search, compare, buy and share has changed immensely. We adopt new platforms, products, and services rapidly, without even thinking twice about it. If there is something better out there, we will change in an instant. Human beings today are experts at change.

So why is change so hard in the workplace? There is a common belief that creating change inside organisations is a near impossible endeavour. The idea is that organisations are monolithic beasts, whose bureaucracy and structures inherently resist change. Is this really true?

We certainly acknowledge that change takes time, and there is an art to making it happen. But we firmly believe it’s not as hard as everyone thinks. It’s just that in the workplace, there is a long history of change being handled poorly and so the common misperception is that people will resist it. But at its core, it’s not about change; it’s a trust issue.

Since people have been mistreated in the past, they do not trust that this time it will be different. So guards are put up and resistance kicks in. This negative feeling towards change is so pervasive that everyone believes that ‘change is impossible’.

And it’s fair enough. However, the ‘change is impossible’ mindset is thoroughly unhelpful and self-defeating at the beginning of a project. In contrast, having a healthy disregard for the impossible is a much better frame of mind to begin creating change inside your organisation. Without this strong belief there will be no change.

If you believe that humans are experts at change, and that change is possible, your approach to change management will alter radically. If you believe the workplace is made up of capable adults who can deal with good and bad news, then the way you treat these adults will be very different.

Things change. People know change is a necessity. What people don’t like is when they aren’t handled with dignity and respect. When employees are left in the dark for weeks. When their needs aren’t taken into consideration, understandably, they push back. When they are treated as low-level recipients of change instead of active participants of change, surely you can’t blame them for not being enthused?

Treating adults like adults and believing that humans are experts at change is a crucial starting point for managing and navigating complex change situations.

INSIGHT #2:
ALWAYS START WITH EMPATHY

In the past few years we’ve been working on organisational change projects involving hundreds of thousands of employees, with billions of dollars at stake. We kept seeing the same thing happen over and over again. Secret teams would be assembled, plans would be masterminded behind closed meeting room doors and communications experts would spend weeks carefully crafting key messages and email blasts. 

While these covert teams were planning change, rumours would spread across the organisation. All of sudden, self-protecting behaviour would emerge. A sense of dread would creep into the environment. It was never pretty. And rarely did it work.

Logical cascading of key change messages is just that, logical. But humans are emotional and irrational. They respond to stories, not data. Death by PowerPoint in Town Hall meetings and perfectly scripted emails don’t create instant buy-in. Neither does one-way communication. Knowing that the typical employee is fairly skeptical, why do organisations continue to use these ineffective modes of interaction when it comes to creating change? It’s fundamentally the wrong thing to do.

The starting point of all change should not be to tell people logical facts about change. Instead, the starting point for change is empathy. Starting with empathy means starting with listening and making people feel heard. It means asking great questions and embracing whatever emotional responses come back.

Not so long ago now we were working with a company based across the Asia Paci c region. We spent two months traveling to seven countries, meeting hundreds of people face- to-face. We engaged and listened to people at all levels. We even followed up with every single person. At the end, they felt heard and understood.

Organisations have stopped listening, and when you bring that back, the response is overwhelmingly positive. That initial act of empathy helped us understand what was really happening across the organisation. It gave us key information to know what change would work, and what change wouldn’t work. It helped us to build the necessary relationships. In the end, when it came time to implement change, we were ten times more effective in aligning people to change.

There’s something so powerful in the simplicity of listening, and making people feel like they matter. This initial empathy is the birthplace of real change.

INSIGHT #3:
CHANGE IS EVERYONE’S JOB

Do you have a ‘Change Manager’ inside your HR department?

Many organisations have a dedicated person whose responsibility is to manage change projects. These are wonderful people with a great skillset, but it’s not enough.

Change is no longer something done by HR to the organisation. Managing change is permanent, ongoing and everyone’s responsibility.

Imagine how much quicker your organisation could move if it had 500, 5000, or 15,000 people who believed they were change agents. Change champions need to permeate the workplace, constantly challenging the status quo. Every organisation wants to be more agile to keep up with the pace of change, and that starts with moving away from the mindset that change is something that happens at a specific point in time, led by someone with the job title ‘Change Manager’. Instead, an agile organisation is one that is constantly listening and involving hundreds of people in ongoing change.

Involving hundreds or thousands of people in the process of change shifts employees from being passive, begrudging recipients of change, to active, accepting participants of change. People like change they help to co- create. And most of the time they have some pretty good ideas.

The key is to invest the time helping people understand the pain points and problems. They will naturally want to help solve them and through that process, they will already be internalising the change they need to make.

When you stop underestimating the potential of those inside your organisation and start listening, the possibilities are endless.