Change management: from Half-Empty to Half-Full

04.15.2014

By Andreas Thomma, CEO Coverdale Swtizerland,

Change management – why is this still such an important topic? Certainly we are faced with many changes in the course of our lives. Sometimes we welcome change and feel very satisfied with the results; other changes are experienced as difficult challenges, or stressful events, and we only appreciate the benefit of the change much later on.

We are living in a time of great upheaval. A good example of this is what’s happening in the global financial system. Will companies still be managed the same way they are today in 10 years’ time? Societal and governmental shifts, changes in the age distribution, new ideas about the integration of work and the private sphere, advances in technology, all these, and more besides, will bring many changes in years to come.

We all know colleagues, friends and relatives who complain about the rapid pace of change in the modern era.

Feelings of powerlessness and being at the “mercy of it all” as passive observers is a common reaction. Change is even sometimes perceived as having no benefit at all and its only purpose to cause turmoil and uncertainty.

Individual Reactions

Because change is occurring constantly and in every area of life – business, the economy, the general work environ- ment, education and training, the personal sphere, etc., what does this mean for the individual? Why, when confronted with change do people behave so differently?

For many people it is clear – change is negative. Or is it?  We typically experience change in different phases as shown on the graph. 

No matter the change they are facing, people move through the stages of shock, rejection, resistance, exploration, agreement and identification. Yet despite the fact that these phases are common to all, each individual responds to change in a very personal way. Each person wanders through this curve at different speeds and at different levels of comfort. 

This has a lot to do with personality. Some individuals seek to defend tradition and maintain present systems while others actively seek new things. This also has to do with peo- ples’ past experiences. Were earlier changes deemed positive or negative? Did the individuals involved tend to see change as a threat or an opportunity, or “the glass” as “half empty” or “half full”?

What is important is that there should be no covert value judgment about the attitudes people hold regarding change. It is not about “right” or “wrong”. People have different perspectives. We should be very thankful for this, because they conceal strengths. And these need to be exploited - perhaps especially in change situations.

Acknowledging that different people go through the phases of change at different speeds and seeing this as a given and as a potential strength helps everyone, from change agent to front line employee. This is clear and even useful. Some people need more time, and some people get stuck, for example, in a state of rejection. Others, for whatever reason, are quicker to explore new things. When you observe a group of people, like a team confronted with change, you can see quite readily how each team member has his or her own unique pace and perceptions in regards to what’s happening.

First conclusion:  changes take time and impact people differently! The bigger the change and the more people involved, the more time is needed. 

 What do we experience in companies?

As just stated, the bigger the change and the more people involved, the more time is needed. But what do things look like in reality? It seems
as if the pace of business no longer allows time to get used to new situations. Sometimes the changes come at an almost dizzying rate. This complaint is not only voiced by employees lower down the ranks, but also by managers who are at the top of the hierarchy and thus – theoretically – should have more influence and control over the transitions initiated.

Too many changes in too short a period lead to frustration, sarcasm and indifference among those charged with implementing the changes. This can be observed in comments such as, “we’ll survive this one as well” or “in six months they will change everything again anyway so let’s not take it too seriously”.

Therefore it is imperative that all decision makers, whether the executive committee, departmental management or team leaders, question whether people are prepared and in a position to cope with during the change process. Sometimes a small break during the change process to “check in” is worth more than achieving mandated, quick, but potentially shallow, non-lasting, or unreliable commitment.

If too much is changed too often, the change curve flattens out. People are no longer shocked and therefore hardly ever get stuck anymore in rejection, as they are rendered apathetic to “yet another new thing”. This could be considered good, yet the bad news is that people also never get the chance to really identify with or get excited about the new situation. This is not desirable from a company point of view because organizations can only call on everyone to do their utmost if their people are motivated and the environment offers a certain clarity and stability. 

An important prerequisite for a good transition from “old” to “new” is that there is information provided on the underlying reason as well as the common sense benefit of a change. In short, effective change management is ultimately about good communication and endowing the change with meaning. 

Opt in or opt out – everyone has a choice

Leaders are not the only ones who need to think and act carefully in times of change. Front line managers and em- ployees also must do the same. It is a waste of energy to focus on those things that cannot be changed or were unwanted in the transition. This causes a negative mind-set individually as well as creates a negative atmosphere for the team as a whole. At some point, everyone will need to realize they have a choice: either they can live with it and join in
or conclude that the new situation is unacceptable. However, to stay and keep the focus on the “good old times” and/or to block or slow important developments ultimately helps no one and creates an unnecessarily negative environment.

Yet is it absolutely crucial, and should, in fact, be very welcome for people to express their concerns about change in a constructive manner. This helps to achieve even better results. A very simple but important outgrowth of allowing this exchange: decision makers may not have thought of everything and perhaps given too little consideration to information that had they better understood, would have made the transition smoother and more successful.

Now a brief word about rejection, there are always people who resist new things in the false hope that the present situation will be preserved. This is a fatal illusion. Believing we can stop change by ignoring or refusing it will not work and is actually impossible. Since the world around us is constantly changing with or without our participation, doing nothing will still result in a different world anyway. And worse, if we cling to the past, we run the risk of living in a fantasy world. The situation of “yesterday” is no longer; it simply does not exist anymore.

 

How does this play out in reality?

What happens in the various phases? How do we recognize, for example in the business setting, what phase a person is in and what behaviors are useful to those within each phase?

What we see in the table reminds us once again of the im- portance of information giving. Communication is an absolutely key factor. The people affected need data. They want background. They want to understand the motivation behind the change and of course what it means for every individual involved. Ideally, it should come from the line manager. But everyone involved should make an active effort to obtain and share information. This crucial exchange comes through colleagues, through internal networks – both formal and informal – and above all through questions put directly to the line manager.

To be fair, often the “whole story” is not available or is only elaborated in the course of the change. This leads to a further take-home message ...

Second conclusion: If you cannot communicate about the content of the change, you can at least talk about the process.

 What is meant by this? It is often the managers who are stuck in the middle, wanting to pass on more information but not knowing anything new or anything certain them- selves. They find themselves in this dilemma because necessary decisions have not yet been made. Typically, there are two possible ways of getting around this. Either nothing is said, with the result that rumors arise and insecurity in the team increases. Or, managers can share whatever information they do have, what the next steps are from their perspective, and that the next decision, for example, will be made in four weeks’ time and that people will be informed as soon as more information is available. This establishes trust and creates more peace and a sense of security for everyone.

So, how do you get people from one end of the curve to the other, from shock to identification? The table offers suggestions of where to start and the sorts of things that help people cope better with change: the key factors being time and plenty of information. Yet, it is above all about active participation. The more you can involve people in change processes the better. This concept is fairly easy to appreciate if we reflect on our own experiences, "if I can influence something myself, if I can help to shape things, this gives me a good feeling and then I can support the change better."

Third conclusion: People want to be involved in changes. The more this is possible the better. Get the people affected involved. 

Additionally, over time, we all develop something that could be called “change skills”. Each time we manage to navigate a change successfully, we increase our skills and confidence, which can be applied to future change efforts.

No changes occur without resistance

Negative statements and even constructive resistance are to be expected when faced with change. Knowing this, how can we encourage coping with, rather than fighting against, the change and what can be done to break the resistance?

First of all, forbidding resistance is certainly the wrong approach. Concerns must be listened to and taken serious- ly. People who criticize usually have justified concerns that need to be considered in the implementation if at all possible.

If you try applying pressure to reduce resistance, you will usually achieve the opposite. A good method – for all sides – is to try putting yourself in the other person’s position. How would I react if I were in that person’s situation? This often leads to a greater degree of mutual understanding and perhaps even an idea as to what can be done. At the very least it helps all parties to listen to one another and take each other’s concerns seriously, which then enhances team cooperation and cohesiveness at a time it is greatly needed. 

Fourth conclusion: There is no change without resistance. If you do not hear any negative or critical statements, then you should become very skeptical. Constructive resistance and criticism are good and important.

Do you have to agree with every change?

And is it even worthwhile fighting change? Yes, if it is very important to you. It is crucial to express arguments, ideas, concerns and so on. However, once a decision has been made, then it is no longer worthwhile fighting against it. Doing this only causes frustration and is a waste of time. Unfortunately, we see people in a lot of teams who continue glorifying the past situation for months, if not years, and thus waste energy that could be used to embrace the new situation. From an individual perspective, this is danger- ous behavior, if one hopes to keep his or her job and peace of mind. In the long run, no organization can afford to retain people who systematically and continually resist reforms. And equally important, as an individual, it is no fun working in an environment where you or your co-workers have very fundamental concerns about it.

The call to “love it, change it or leave it” is applicable here. Either we warm to the new situation (or to put it another way, “fall in love” with the change), or we can try to alter, adapt or improve the new reality. And if we can neither accept nor alter the new situation and come to the conclu- sion that this is ultimately an unacceptable situation, then there is only one solution: to go. This might seem somewhat radical. But then at least we are being honest – with those with whom we work – and especially to ourselves. 

Two sides of a coin

Are we humans actually for or against change? In response to this question, the argument often is given that we tend to be wary of change. And the more life experience a person has, the more critical he or she is towards change. That may be, but can we be so sure? We all know examples of people who react quite differently to the same event and we all know people who seem incredibly receptive to new things.

A crucial factor is how the change came about. Was the change self-initiated or in participation with the others in- volved?  Or was the change determined by someone else?

If a change is self-initiated, then actions are taken con- sciously, staggered in time with a sense of purpose and a plan, and there is energy to try to improve the situation. In essence, this is about seeing change as an opportunity. 

 However, if a person is on the receiving end of a change, then it is often experienced as surprising, threatening, de-energizing and negative, especially since – from this person’s perspective – there is no reason to change anything. 

 Depending on which position a person is in, change is perceived as a logical process or as an unexpected surprise. So different people experience the same change in very different ways! 

 Here, too, the key ingredient is: information, information, information. It is all about creating the greatest possible transparency, showing different perspectives, and fostering participation when possible. It is always fascinating how people – in retrospect – view change. Ironically, many who have opposed a change – at times vehemently – afterwards see the new situation as much better and sometimes express it with statements like, “I’m fortunate it happened to me” or “Why did I wait so long to try this?." 

Fifth conclusion: Every change stands or falls with communication. You cannot inform, communicate, explain or answer questions too much – there is no such thing as “over-doing it” in this case. 

Intuition – a good source of information in times of uncertainty

When facing a transition, we must learn not to prejudge, dismiss, or even condemn everything that occurs to us. Why not use all the resources we have, including our intuition, our gut feeling, and our heart? We often “knew” all along what seemed good and what seemed not so good. In fact, all of us can think of times when our rational mind took hold of our “intuitive knowing” and did one of two things. It either helped us by providing logical arguments as to why we should do something or it tied us down with logical ar- guments as to why the risks entailed were too great.

The complexity and speed of our professional and pri- vate lives is increasing sharply. Thus we often find ourselves in situations of uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence. The rate of change, as we experience it, also adds to this sense of confusion. The faster we get used to this situation, the better.

Total security no longer exists. It is perhaps interesting to ask whether it ever did, or whether we just pretended it did, and convinced ourselves we had total security. Today, oppor- tunities to network are endless and infinite amounts of infor- mation are available to us twenty-four hours a day. As great as this can be, we can get overwhelmed with this incredible amount of connectivity and data. How can we keep up with it all and how do we manage it? We must learn to be flexible as the future promises to be even more of the same. 

 

In the context of change, this phrase is often quoted from Heraclitus, “nothing is as consistent as change” It is easy to see the correctness of this statement. After all, this constant flux is now our daily reality. So what can we do to make this easier to manage?

Each individual’s very personal way of coping with change must be given special consideration. There are no right or wrong ways for people to react, only differences. Keeping this in mind, we need to examine how we cope with change individually and in partnership with others. On teams, we need to expect that each person’s response will be unique and therefore find ways to support an honest and respectful exchange of views. We need to use all the sources of information available – not only hard data, but also intuition – in order to handle things as judiciously and comprehensively as possible.

More lightness is called for in these perplexing times of rapid change. Perhaps in accepting that change is inevitable and that disagreement is inevitable, we could cultivate a little more enjoyment of the process and not fear it or resist it so much. Due to the confusing nature of the challenges we face, we need to open our minds. The opinions of others, even if dissenting, need to be considered. We also need to get more comfortable tapping into the often overlooked and undervalued resource of our intuition. Ironically, a sense of security can only come to us if we open up, adapt, and experiment – doing this will help us cope better with change of any kind.


So instead of dwelling on a past that is no longer present or fighting a losing battle to avoid the inevitable – let’s view change as an opportunity to see the glass as “half full”! 

Category: general
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