Some people positively thrive on change, while others shy away from it. Nick Martindale investigates how we process change – and what your organisation can do to improve the chances of sustaining it
People like structure, calmness and order; change fills them with dread.
As the old saying goes, “the only constant in life is change”.
Nowhere is this more keenly felt at the moment than in business, with many in the private sector looking to shift strategy, take over struggling competitors or move into new, emerging markets, while the public sector goes through the biggest transformation in its history.
The problem is that organisations are not particularly good at change.
One of the major reasons is that they tend to consistently underestimate the human side of change: the very real characteristics that can affect whether individuals embrace the challenge ahead or fail to buy into it.
“Organisations are going through so much change nowadays that simply assuming or presuming that people will be able to adopt and adapt is fundamentally flawed,” says Dale Kirk, principal consultant at Thales Training & Consultancy
“People often want their voice to be heard, to feel that they are not being ignored and that their contribution is valued. This is essential within organisational change programmes, and managers can play a key role in achieving this.”
One reason why this aspect is often handled so badly – both by senior leaders and managers – is that individuals respond to change in different ways.
“For a lot of people change equals anxiety,” says Jo Lee, director of organisational development consultancy AytonLee. She has also been a consultant at the Financial Services Authority (FSA), where she oversaw the change management programme that followed the government’s decision to abolish the organisation.
“People like structure, calmness and order; change fills them with dread. I have seen organisations make huge assumptions about how people should behave in a changing organisation and if they’re not optimistic and embracing it then they’re seen as against it.
"But that’s not where they’re coming from; they need to be involved in another way.”
Managers have a pivotal role to play in helping employees understand and buy into any programme of change.
“It doesn’t need to be too complicated,” says Tim Phillips, director at organisational transformation consultants Moorhouse.
“You need to have a change mantra that is easily followed and understood in terms of the commercial and organisational rationale, which can then be translated down to a personal level in terms of ‘What do I need to do?’. You need to provide a vision about the direction and give them enough clues to be able to internalise that and make it real.”
Tom Quayle, a consultant at employee development experts Chemistry Group, stresses the need for managers to find a reason for people to want the change to happen, drawing on the principles behind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“Behaviour change happens when you can anchor it to something that someone cares about,” he says. “If I don’t respond well to change but I care about people, then I can start to anchor change around the fact I will be letting people down around me if I don’t change. It’s really important that management are able to have those types of conversations.”
One of the most critical functions managers can perform is to keep employees informed about what is happening throughout the whole process.
Harry Dunlevy, director at HR consultancy Independent, says: “It’s really spelling out what it means for people. If you’re bringing a new business into an existing organisation or going into a new market, why are these things happening and how can people make a contribution?
“At the other end, when you’re downsizing, it’s about being open, honest and clear about what that means for people and the scale of the redundancy and restructuring. How is it going to be managed, what sort of timescale is involved and when will I know what will happen to me?”
Pascal Henssen, senior vice president and chief operating officer at outsourcing organisation Genpact Europe, regularly helps customers going through major change processes.
He, too, stresses the role that managers play in communicating with teams. “Share as much information as you can and create a platform for people to talk about what’s happening,” he advises.
Ahead of the curve
A useful tool to help teams and individuals through complicated and potentially unsettling change projects is what’s known as the ‘change curve’.
The curve itself highlights four stages individuals are likely to go through – status quo, disruption, exploration and rebuilding – and lists the various emotions that can be expected at each stage of the journey.
At its most basic level, the curve can help managers understand some of the issues staff might face, even if they do not undergo the same reactions themselves.
“It’s a good navigational tool to help people understand the emotional journey that is involved in change, even though everybody in the business world might try to put it into a logical process,” says Ally Salisbury, a partner at organisational change consultants Sheppard Moscow.
“It’s humans who will implement the change and that’s what managers tend to forget. They think that if they put a new wallchart or structure in place then that’s enough, but it’s the people who will implement it.”
The curve can identify where and when the problems are likely to arise.
“The process itself tends to start with a clear vision of a brighter future with a new system or policy for those affected,” says Will Mitchell, director of consulting at talent management experts A&DC. “The classic problem is that after some time there is a transition, and things get worse before they get better.”
Managers will typically seek to reassure employees that the end result will be delivered during this period, he adds, but they should expect some degree of questioning.
Other techniques can be useful in helping managers identify whether employees are ready for a change programme in the first place.
Andy Dawson, managing director of change management consultancy Curium Solutions, uses what he calls a “change readiness indicator”, which he describes as a “temperature check” of exactly where the organisation is at before any process is undertaken.
“It’s not about the culture of the organisation, but how people perceive what’s going on around them,” he says.
“It’s trust in the organisation, the support they receive, the fairness they perceive and their relationship with their manager. Understanding how people are feeling and what is driving the perception of that organisation can then identify certain interactions or ways of communicating that give you the best chance of success.”
Once the process is underway, managers can make use of those people who naturally react well to change to help pull others through the process.
“You need to have people who are embedded in the business who aren’t the programme and project managers, who effectively act as clients of change,” says Phillips. “There is a tipping point at which change becomes much more real because you have a critical mass and enough people are talking about it, so it starts to become the new way that things are done.”
Throughout all of this, managers also need to think about their own ability to cope with change and prepare for the challenges of leading teams through the process.
“There’s often an assumption that because you’re a manager you have the capabilities to manage change, but often this is not the case,” says Salisbury.
“Typically managers would like a change process to be linear and structured. Often they decide what the action is going to be, perhaps through some gap analysis, and then they think about what they need to do to achieve that. That’s where their thinking tends to stop.
"A deeper and more systemic way of looking at it would be to go back one step further and look at what the thinking, the behaviour, the leadership culture and the mindset need to be in order to achieve that.”
Tough at the top
Managers who aren’t able to cope with change often present the biggest challenge to the overall success of change programmes, says Phillips.
“In some ways it’s relatively straightforward for the people on the front line because they only have to deal with themselves,” he says. “The real challenge occurs when you get those further up the structure who are supposed to be managing other people’s change journeys; they may be unable to because they don’t identify or agree with it themselves.”
In these situations, senior leaders need to ensure that line managers have all the support they require.
Lee recalls a situation in which line managers were asked where they felt they most needed support.
“The topics that came up were really interesting,” she says.
“They wanted workshops on personal resilience, how they could manage themselves through change, and on how to answer difficult questions. They also wanted help in being authentic; that is, not just giving the corporate message but letting people know where they were regarding the change and how to say they were also a bit anxious.”
The positive news for managers who can adapt and lead through change is that they are likely to flourish during uncertain times.
“The last few years of economic turmoil seem set to continue,” says Mitchell. “Managers who can help employees enquire into their emotional need for stability and permanence, and gain confidence in their internal resources for resilience, will be successful in the years ahead.”