Effective Change Management

Posted on August 27, 2010


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These days change is a constant, there is always something changing somewhere for some reason. It is almost impossible to work anywhere without going through some type of change. Change isn’t a bad thing and in today’s business world change is necessary to survive. However, if not executed properly change can be damaging to a company, it can negatively impact employee morale as well as disrupting productivity. No matter how big or small the change is, employees will have some type of reaction to it and often it is the smaller changes that cause the biggest grief. One reason for this is simple; management often underestimates how people will react to small changes. Although we don’t always listen, human nature tells us that people react differently to things; one person may perceive a change as a major event and another person perceives it as insignificant. It is this difference that can lead to trouble.

For management it is a mistake to assume that a change is “no big deal”. For example in an ill fated change at one company, people’s chairs were changed to a more ergonomic type. Or at another company management decided that rearranging the workspaces would be more efficient, so they changed where people sat. In both cases these seemingly small changes caused major issues. Now the unfortunate thing in both cases is that management simply made the changes and the next day when the employees came in their stuff had been moved or their chair was gone. A simple beneficial change to management was very upsetting to the employees because their personal space and stuff had been violated. Granted one could argue that it is really the company’s stuff, but let’s face it; people take temporary ownership of their space at work so they take it personally when someone messes with it.

Another example involved changing a time clock. Seems like a fairly innocuous change doesn’t it? Guess again. The regular time clock was changed to a hand recognition clock. For those of you who have never seen one, you put your hand down on the reader and the clock recognizes it as you and records your time. It eliminates the need to remember to bring a security card with you and was thought to be something that would help employees, especially those who regularly lost their cards. The backlash was extreme. Part of the problem was that employees weren’t told prior to purchasing the clock, they were told once it was installed and ready for use. The other problem was human nature, everyone reacts differently to things as mentioned earlier and some people felt that their right to privacy had been violated. No one in management saw that coming. Not only did this cause some bad feelings, it also took a lot more of management’s time in damage control than anticipated. Time is one thing no one has in excess these days so avoiding problems like this should be a priority.

So how can situations like this be avoided? Part of the answer is easy, treat all changes the same no matter how big or small they are. Larger changes always have impact, so management often anticipates that there will be reaction to the change and therefore they spend a lot more time planning and communicating. However, even small changes should be planned and communicated effectively. Let’s look at some ways to make sure the changes, whether big or small can be implemented smoothly.

Whenever possible involve employees upfront and get their feedback and buy-in. It may not be practical to get all employees together unless you have a small company so it makes sense to use a small group (focus group) to be a representative sample of the workforce. If you are unionized, use the union representatives and a group of employees. You may also want to involve the Union Stewards, which will give you a chance to explain it to them first hand as opposed to them hearing from an employee that may not have gotten the message straight or maybe they just don’t like whatever the change is. Being up front about the change is going to be a lot better for everyone than perhaps trying to get the change through and making apologies later.

As strange as it might sound, when you pick the employees for this focus group, pick the ones that are known for finding loop holes or the ones that always seem to find the negative in everything. If you manage to get their buy-in the whole change will run a lot smoother. Use the information gathered from the employees to formulate your communication plan and the content of the communication. Now that you know some of the concerns that employees have, you can address them up front.

If you can’t ask for input up front (and sometimes you can’t) make sure that during the communication you let people ask questions and address concerns. As you communicate keep one very important point in mind, people will always want to know first and foremost, “what is in it for me” (WIIFM). It is very important to tell people why the change is happening, but it isn’t enough to just tell them the benefits to the company, what is the benefit to them? If the only benefit is tied to the overall good of the company than you need to tie that back to job security of a stronger company or the ability to be more efficient which will lead to being able to service customers better, whatever the case might be.

The best way to communicate most changes is in person, so that people can ask questions and you can address concerns. However, following up in written format is also beneficial, it not only is good for getting to those people who missed the meeting, but some people absorb things better in written form. Just as human nature makes people react differently to changes, it also makes how they process information different. Some like to hear things verbally, others like to read it and some need repetition. The bigger the change the more communication you will need. Closing a plant for example needs continuous communication in various forms to be effective. Changing a time clock might need a focus group meeting, a full employee meeting and posted memos or emails.

Whatever the change, remember not to underestimate the impact on employees, you and your management team might not be able to come up with why people wouldn’t like something but your employees who are looking at it from a different perspective certainly might. Preventive communication is your first defense against having to run damage control after a failed change. The more you can communicate and address how employees will be impacted are the keys to successful change management.

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