Successful Change

Change-Making It Reality

Change is often crucial, but never easy. When executives rally their trooops to forge ahead, often the troops are neither ready nor willing. Why? Think about the recent past - downsizing, restructurings, takeovers and other major strategic shifts. No wonder the last thing they may want is more change. They may be angry and distrustful of management, given all who have been laid off or those whose careers have been sidetracked. Their self-esteem may be bruised and they may not feel like they have any say in the company's success.

To achieve change, leaders need to get their employees to let go of the past and move forward as quickly as possible, both emotionally and in the work they do. This entails two steps. First, support for the status quo must be weakened by acknowledging the difficulties of the past and uncertainties of the challenges ahead. Give the employees the opportunity to express and work through the emotions that a transition stirs up. The second step involves convincing employees that change is necessary and building support for a new initiative. Executives can foster enthusiasm by offering a clear, detailed vision of where the company is headed and sustain it by supporting employees emotionally and involving employees in establishing new operating procedures for their jobs.

The Power of Understanding

Empathy is a powerful tool during transitions. Employees are more likely to hang on to the fear, uncertainty and resentment if it seems to them that management has no clue about how they feel. Leaders who acknowledge those feelings and help employees deal with them create an environment of cooperation and trust.

One way to demonstrate empathy with employees is to be more open with them. The chief executive of a consumer-electronics retailer renewed his attempt to address the company's reputation for poor customer service. His previous efforts to change employees' attitudes and behavior had failed. Tactics like bringing in motivational speakers and sending key employees to generic "best practices" conferences only increased employee cynicism.

This time, instead of simply pushing for change, the CEO began by leveling with employees that the transformation would be a difficult challenge for everyone. That was a switch from his previous tendency to send out mostly sugar-coated messages. He followed up by providing honest communications with employees as the transition progressed. And he urged other company executives to do the same.

He also set up workshops which aimed at educating employees on how they could adapt to change and at helping them see how those dynamics applied to their situation. These were no generic "change management" workshops; instead, they encouraged employees to examine why they were holding on to the old way of doing things, so that they could more easily let go.

Employees also just sometimes need to vent. At a Midwest-based company, transition trauma started with the acquisition and integration of another company's business units. In addition to diversifying their customer base, the deal was supposed incorporate a faster-acting and more entrepreneurial approach of the acquired company. The new president setup meetings in which employees were able to vent their emotions. The meetings were led by an outside facilitator to protect employee confidentiality. A senior executive opened each of the sessions with a personal example of letting go of outmoded behaviors or attitudes. The executive then left the room and the facilitator led a discussion among the employees. Many of them openly mourned what they were leaving behind - old ways of seeing and doing things, along with abandoned hopes and expectations. Some talked about the need to honor and then let go of the pain from earlier mismanagement, and many complimented their new president and his team for allowing them to do so in a shared ritual.

The senior executive who opened the meeting then returned to listen to a summary of the employees' comments, which were presented by the facilitator to maintain anonymity. But in most sessions, some employees stepped up to elaborate on or reiterate key issues. They also made a point of thanking the executive for providing a forum for open discussion.

Making the Business Case

While executives are connecting with their employees on an emotional level, they also need to engage them on an intellectual level: Everyone in the organization needs to understand the business case for change. In communicating an inspiring vision to employees, detail is important. To do that, a CEO of a telecommunication firm provided much more information about how the company intended to achieve its goals than employees had received before. He outlined, in detail, how a reorganized sales force could win the company a prominent position in markets around the world. He accelerated his review of the products and services of the combined companies and announced some decisions on which products and services would be retained or eliminated and why. And he asserted the need for the company to become more aggressive in selling its products and services.

The new president began enhancing communications to help employees understand what was going on around them and why behavior in the company had to change. He also directed managers at all levels to do the same and made skills training available to support them. An internal web site dedicated to the transition was created, offering more information about the business than had ever been provided to employees.

To fully make the case for change, executives need to convince employees that it's not only necessary, but also is achievable - and that can be a hard sell when employees already have been asked to do more with less. In one instance, pushing for enhanced customer service met opposition. Reduced staff questioned how the company's goals could be achieved by what they considered an overburdened work force. The company answered by setting up meetings where together employees and managers set goals and focused on priorities, agreeing on immediate changes that at least pointed the business in the right direction and generated some confidence-building quick progress.

Looking Towards the Future

People can, of course, be excited about new opportunities for their company and still be anxious about their own future. Unfortunately, worries like that can sap much of their energy. To ease that anxiety, employees were sought in developing new approaches to their work, in part through voluntary workshops on innovation and creativity. In evaluations following the sessions, attendees said they felt like the company was investing in them as part of the transition. That raised their self-confidence, eased their concerns about downsizing and restored some of their pride in the company.

To build on those positive feelings, managers kept employees engaged through more-frequent performance reviews and department heads set achievable short-term goals for improvements and employees were kept informed of progress.
Establishing New Procedures
Employees need to be involved in translating the company's new vision into everyday procedures. Their involvement bolsters their commitment to the transition by helping them maintain a sense of control.

At one firm, employees translated mission statements and behavior guidelines into day-to-day operating procedures. Supervisors and managers reviewed the proposed procedures to ensure that they supported the mission and that each department's procedures wouldn't conflict with any other's.

Again, follow-up and monitoring is important. Even the most carefully planned and successfully implemented transitions go awry at some point. The more closely leaders monitor their company's progress, the more quickly they will be able to recognize any detours. Such monitoring should include feedback not just from the company's managers but also from its employees.

In one instance, a feedback system set up by the new president to monitor the business's transition included regular surveys of employees, as well as follow-up group interviews with selected teams. Those surveys and interviews allowed everyone to work together to ensure that procedures were being implemented as planned and adjusted as necessary.

All of this pays off not just for whatever transition a company is going through now, but also for the future. Change comes to most businesses more regularly than ever these days and those companies whose employees have learned how to let go of the old and embrace the new will be in a better position to succeed.

Source: Mitchell Marks via

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