The New Face of Change Management

  • 10 mins read

Leaders and managers are testing their assumptions and abilities in change management as organizations, lines of business, and teams are asked to pivot quickly in their roles and responsibilities. Many employees are being asked to take on additional work, perform new tasks, work in new environments, or work under increasing pressure. Everyone is affected.

Even in times of crisis, a swift, top-down approach to managing change simply doesn’t work.

Two theories explain this:

▶ People are hard-wired for homeostasis. We naturally resist change, especially imposed change. You don’t have to look far to see examples of this today.

▶ Change occurs constantly. Every person and every process changes. Leaders and managers often fail to recognize and embrace this.

However, meaningful change can occur when all employees are engaged throughout the change process. Employees who understand the obstacles and principles have their concerns and questions answered and can contribute with their experience and knowledge to engage in meaningful change.

This is no easy task, especially in times of crisis. Managing meaningful change begins by engaging in and managing conversations.

The Basis for Meaningful Change

Have you noticed how leaders who speak louder, cajole, argue, and push incur greater resistance?

In their attempt to influence how people behave—their purpose or process—they fail to address the needs, desires, and agendas of those they want to persuade. This approach only serves to foster a closed or fixed mindset.

For example, leaders and managers of closed offices must examine what changes are needed to ensure employee and client safety.

Many factors need to be considered, including (but not limited to) workspaces, processes and routines, new or temporary policies, and the feelings and circumstances of returning employees. While many are eager to return to work, there remains a level of uncertainty, apprehension, and stress in doing so.

Managing meaningful change requires each employee’s engagement in the decision-making of where, how, and when they work. Of course, the level of flexibility may vary depending on circumstances. However, leaders and managers can make a conversation meaningful with two-way dialog: listen, ask, mirror, and reflect back on what is heard.

Ask what is needed, and discuss anticipated changes. Employees who participate in decisions that directly affect them have greater confidence and adaptability, including necessary physical distancing, wearing masks, and other new hygiene protocols.

Leaders who maintain an open mindset engage in learning. They offer compassion, honesty, and openness. And remember: leaders and managers are role models for the changes they wish to see.

Consider this: the voice of divergence and dissidence can catalyze innovation and growth. Unfortunately, there are times when leaders fail to recognize their worth or the opportunities they illuminate. Some leaders ignore, dismiss, or even demonize those who point out problems.

Alternatively, leaders can foster assertive diplomacy. They create environments where it is safe to complain and collaborate on meaningful solutions. Great leaders are masters of emotional conflicts. Rather than resist, they receive and offer feedback to create positive results.

Humans are hard-wired to resist change and avoid pain and suffering. These survival traits hinder creativity and meaningful change, which is often necessary in high-stakes situations.

Effective Assertive Diplomacy

To encourage assertive diplomacy, model the behavior.

Listen first. A leader’s ability to listen to signals that he values others’ ideas and input.

Keep it low. People know where power lies. You don’t need to advertise it. If you model quiet power, you can remain calm when tempers fly.

Act decisively. Decisiveness is the payoff to reflective assertiveness. You demonstrate strength by acting confidently. Even if you need time to think before taking action, you can keep people informed about the progress of the decision-making process.

Consider how Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) responded to the Great Depression crisis. Nine days after his inaugural speech, FDR persuaded would-be hoarders to return their cash to the banks. Within a month, two-thirds of withdrawn deposits were re-deposited. The NYSE rebounded with the largest one-day gain in history.

FDR managed meaningful change by addressing needs. He succeeded by taking action and managing fear.

Managing Fear

Managing fear is not about denying fear or ignoring it.

According to Dartmouth’s Distinguished Professor Vijay Govindarajan and Columbia Business School Faculty Director Hylke Faber, authors of a Harvard Business Review article (May 2016), change is about managing fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of fear itself.

Have you ever listened to the recording of FDR’s Fireside Chat? While there weren’t the same opportunities for two-way dialog as political and business leaders have today (from daily press briefings to virtual meetings), FDR laid out the actions and steps to address concerns without feeding fears or inciting resistance.

Change Management: The Power of Why

Managing through change can be a real crucible test for leaders today. To be sure, intense, unplanned, and traumatic events have the power to transform leadership abilities. But great leaders can prevent fueling fires, pivot with purpose, and lead others to positive, meaningful change.

The basis of change management begins with an open mindset. Great leaders manage meaningful change by managing conversations, fear, and taking action. Their vision, ideas, and changes take flight by answering why.

Why taps into our subconscious thoughts, the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. This part of the brain is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. It stimulates the thought, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and begins the analysis of trustworthiness.

When the request to pivot addresses why and is linked to a higher purpose, listeners can sift (filter on value), sort (decide to align), and take flight (ignite with passion and purpose).

While well-designed changes are required for businesses to pivot, they won’t inspire engagement unless they tap into values and purpose—into the hearts of those they wish to engage. Basic needs, like safety, must be fulfilled, but maintaining motivation and engagement requires something in which to believe. It provides context for all our efforts and sacrifices and sustains our energy for the tasks at hand.

Align with What Truly Matters

Leaders who manage meaningful change ensure the proposed changes are in alignment with what truly matters:

▶ Why we are in business

▶ The difference we make in the world

▶ Our most important purpose

When this topic comes up with my clients, we discuss the importance of understanding and being able to articulate the following:

🗨 Why is this change important to your organization?

🗨 How is this change important to the people you serve?

🗨 Why is this change important to all of the employees?

🗨 What is its functional benefit to customers, clients, vendors, and all stakeholders?

🗨 What is the emotional benefit to them?

🗨 What is the ultimate value to your customer?

🗨 Why is this important to you?

How can you expect employees to engage in changes if you don’t know and cannot communicate why you want specific changes?

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business at Harvard Business School and director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Persist, pivot, and persevere, and there’s hope for finding another successful path.” 

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Tips for Employees: The Art of Complaining in Change Management

Employees are often in the perfect position to see what doesn’t work in an organization and are important collaborators in meaningful change. But it takes assertive diplomacy. There is an art to complaining up, down, and sideways.

Meaningful change management is a conversation on what truly matters to all stakeholders: the employees, their managers and leaders, the shareholders, the vendors, and those they serve. Clearly, not all bosses are secure in their authority, nor are all employees comfortable in challenging authority figures. But those who persist, those who are willing to rethink options and assumptions and focus on ideas, not personalities, can implement meaningful change.

Focus on the facts. Everyone is prone to bias and blind spots. Ensure your points are based on fact-based evidence, and be prepared to back them up with verifiable resources and research. Dig to find other points of view so you are prepared to counter them.

Test your assumptions. Before presenting your ideas to your boss, find people who can play devil’s advocate and explore your assumptions. They will either disprove your premise and prompt you to rethink your course of action, or they will validate your path and boost your confidence.

Understand the difference between correlation and causation. When there isn’t a lot of research or science, correlations may be the only evidence available. But just because there’s a link between two issues doesn’t mean one provoked the other.

Just as leaders and managers should begin their appeal for change with why, so should the employee. Why is this issue important to you? Why is it important to those you serve?

When sharing your opinions, differentiate between facts, perspectives, and feelings. Use “I” statements:

🗨 “I have found…”

🗨 “I believe… “

🗨 “I feel…”

Select your audience. To initiate and collaborate on meaningful change, you need to engage with other collaborators: someone who has the desire and power to collaborate on a solution. Before you choose your audience, be clear on your goals. Do you want to vent, build a coalition, identify collaborators, or prepare and test your complaint?

Identify solutions. Be prepared to contribute to collaborative solutions for your complaint. Identify the outcome you are seeking and the action you are proposing. Always emphasize the solution when describing a problem.

Choose your tone and emotions. A complaint usually arises from an emotional place. However, communicate in a calm, rational manner. Appeal to emotions with direct, factual information that references the values under which your organization operates.

Successful Change Management Today

We’re facing unprecedented times as we pivot in how we do business. Many leaders are paving the way for others to follow, sharing lessons learned and common mistakes that can be avoided:

Communication is inefficient, often one-way.

▶ Plans are developed top-down.

▶ Change is incongruent with organizational values and culture.

▶ Support and resources (emotional, physical, mental, spiritual) are inadequate.

▶ Negativity is not managed.

Managing Negativity

You don’t have to look far to see negativity today. Images and words are everywhere. While we mustn’t ignore problems, we do need to understand and manage the impact of negativity.

Negativity affects our well-being (our psychological state and processes) more than positivity. As John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister point out in their new book, The Power of Bad (Penguin Press, 2019), “The negativity effect is a simple principle, with not-so-simple consequences. We make terrible decisions when we don’t appreciate the power of bad to warp our judgment. Unrecognized (and unaddressed) the negativity effect can promote fear, phobias, tribalism, and resistance to meaningful change.”

Great leaders manage negativity with a few key principles and techniques.

▶ Recognize and acknowledge negativity in the images you see, the words you hear, and the tone you use. Consider alternatives, and refer to and/or share these throughout the day.

▶ Showcase good news: specific images, stories, and/or headlines of employees modeling desired behaviors and achieving positive results.

▶ For every proposed change, point out four things that will remain the same. These could refer to mission, values, purpose, policies, processes, places, people, etc.

Negativity narrows our focus to why something is wrong or won’t work. It prompts immediate, survival-oriented behaviors, including resistance to change. In contrast, a positive mindset broadens our perspective; we feel better, engage, learn more, and expand our creativity and productivity.

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