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How to manage organisational change

Managing and leading change and growth

Dealing with the demands of change is the biggest challenge facing every business today. It will also be the biggest challenge you face next year and the year after that. Change confronts and challenges our ability to create value for customers and remain relevant. Walk any five year old through your home and point out everything that didn't exist when you were their age....a lot huh! And yet your business will almost certainly change more in the next 3 years than it has in the last 5.

So it's imperative managers understand how to engage their team, and lead the business, in collaborating around change. When it comes to effectively managing change 'nobody's as smart as everybody' because businesses must consistently identify and resolve critical change issues, innovate the way they work and find new and different ways to grow. And its a 'party that never ends!', a constant work-in-progress that is exciting when you embrace it....but chilling when you deny it.

It not only requires innovation of the products and services that comprise your value proposition, but also work processes, cost structures, communication protocols, work environment, employee engagement and so on. Needless to say, at the core of every long-run successful business are managers who know how to lead, manage and sell change effectively.

Of course, managing change in the workplace isn't as simple as implementing some seductively attractive turn-key change management model. If it was that easy you could just hand the task to an academic or some biz-school students....and they'd fail.

You need a process, skills and tools.  An effective process, centred around driving change and growth, may also employ tools such as STAGs (Short Term Action Groups) that are championed by line managers to drive a specific issue to a conclusion. Effective managers establish meaningful communication and engagement with their people (like many things in life, this is always easier to tallk about than it is to do) as a key part of rolling out change initiatives with a team or across an organisation.

In doing so, these managers understand the barriers that block change and the emotions that are experienced during any change process, such as how people react to change, why people resist change, what motivates people to change and what people need to know in order to embrace change. But why is all that stuff important? Because action (change !) is always preceded by dissatisfaction; comfortable people have no motivation, urgency or tolerance for change. So if people, at any level, perceive that the results they are achieving today are 'good or good enough' (reality is irrelevant, it's what people perceive that counts) then they will resist the change, no matter how compelling its benefits may be to some.

For these reasons, managers who tell rather than sell, who force change on people can irreparably damage morale and productivity. The manager who knows how to sell change however will have much greater success in seamlessly introducing new initiatives and maintaining a workforce that's connected and committed, aka engaged, to helping the business achieve its objectives.

Understanding how change affects people

The first thing managers must appreciate before considering any change initiative is how change affects employees – both how readily they will accept the change and the emotional 'pain' that always accompanies change. By understanding the interplay of these psychological issues with the actual change, managers will ensure that they concentrate on the objectives of the change (not the problems) and increase their ability to effectively implement change.

Managers can gauge how readily their people will embrace change by viewing their people on one of the key dimensions of behaviour called 'dominance' or assertiveness. In our usage of the word here, those who are more dominant are risk takers, so they tend to embrace change more readily. This is partly due to their shorter attention span; they don't take the time to internalise information that others would fear. Conversely, less dominant people can exhibit more resistance to change, partly because of a longer attention span that compels them to take their time to analyse and digest information.

There's no 'good' or 'right' end of this spectrum, only differences. What's important for managers to consider, however, is where each of their people lies on it so that they can address them accordingly. It's also important to note that the level of dominance is about people's tolerance for change, not their willingness to change; even the most dominant person in the world will have a tendency to resist changes that impact them. That's why all of your people need to be sold on, and engaged with, any change initiative – managing resistance to change is an essential aspect of this framework – and it helps to understand who will need more selling than others.

Managers must also understand the emotional 'pain points' associated with change, which we call the mindsets of change (addressed in detail in module 9 of this cloud-based management and leadership video-based training system). Any of these may cause people to hesitate in embracing a change initiative, or in resisting it altogether. The mindsets of change include:

  People experience discomfort

Change requires people to do something new, and that often forces them outside their comfort zone. So everyone experiences discomfort to some degree, but the less dominant the person is, the more discomfort they feel.

  People feel they need to give something up

When change is initially introduced, people usually view it in the context of their current situation. This means they only consider what they must give up, not what they may gain. In order to balance this, managers must position the change as a vehicle that will help them grow and fulfill their own objectives.

  People feel alone

Often people will feel as though change requires them to go through it alone, that they must be a pioneer and take a risk. But as humans, we want to be part of a winning team or group. Therefore, managers must ensure that their people never feel as though they're working in isolation. Instead, the change should be positioned as a team effort that will be supported 100% by management.

What motivates employees to change?

By understanding these mindsets of change, managers will appreciate how they come together to form the basic motivations of change.

First, action (change) is always preceded by dissatisfaction. That's because pain – such as any combination of the three mindsets of change – is always involved in change. So without a source of dissatisfaction, people will have no motivation to bear the pain. And even then when people are dissatisfied, if it's not significant enough, they'll still bear the pain of the status quo rather than face the pain of change!

Second, in order for people to embrace change, the benefits must outweigh the pain. Note that these are perceived benefits based on management's communication to the team. So just because the manager believes in the change, or because senior management believes in the change, people won't commit to the change until they believe that the benefits outweigh the pain.

What do people need to know to embrace change?

Change is rarely easy to implement because people almost always think that their current situation is good or at least good enough. Perhaps things at the moment aren't great, but as long as people think they're good or good enough, they won't have sufficient tolerance for change. So how can managers implement change when their people think that things are good or good enough as they are? You have essentially two options:

  Attack what they're doing now

In other words, managers can try to increase the perceived pain that their people currently feel. For example: "I know you think you've been doing well, but you're mistaken." We don't recommend this approach. When you attack what people are doing now, you're attacking their intelligence, their confidence, their professional skills and their abilities. You're attacking them personally, and people resist this very quickly.

  Offer an alternative that provides greater benefits

In this case, managers increase the perception of benefits – the fulfillment of personal objectives – that will come from the change. If people truly believe that the change can help them achieve their goals, then they'll embrace it.

How to implement change in the workplace – the three questions to answer

To effectively lead change, managers must help people satisfactorily answer three questions that people will ask themselves when it's introduced:

  • What is the change?
  • Why is the change being made?
  • How will the change affect me?

Too often, we find that when managers introduce change, they only share the 'what'. When people press them for more information, such as when asked for the 'why', managers will sometimes answer with a 'who'. For example, "because someone (insert name) said so." People will never fully embrace change when its dictated with little or no reasoning, let alone when a nonspecific answer such as this makes it sound as though you have no idea of the 'why' yourself! If managers are to get people to embrace and commit to change, they must ensure that they answer the 'what', the 'why' and the 'how'.

An important note on answering the 'how': a manager's first instinct is usually to provide an advantage that relates to their people's work, such as "it will help you be more productive". But just as people want their jobs to be made easier, they also need to win personally. So be sure to not only give them a work-related win but also a personal win, something that will make them feel good about themselves.

Managing change effectively requires that you understand how people think

As we started out, leading change requires managers juggle a host of psychological factors: how people think, how they perceive their current situation, how they will perceive a new change, etc. In fact, one could argue that the actual process of communicating the change is the easiest part of all. To ensure the success of any change initiative, the lion's share of a manager's effort should go first towards considering how your people will perceive the change, planning and structuring your communication strategy accordingly and practicing your plan. When you're confident in your rationale and delivery then you're in a position to present it to your team.

Practical Sales Management and Leadership is a modular, cloud-based, training system designed to help sales leadership teams grow their ability to performance manage the sales force.  Preview a module from the training system here