Three pillars for managing change



Turn and face the strange”

David Bowie

We don’t need to be told that change is hard. Any one of us who has started a new school or job, thrown out a cherished but battered item of old clothing, or been dumped by the person who told us we needed to throw out that item of clothing, knows change is hardest when we are given no choice. 

When we suffer, we each find our own coping mechanism, some more mature than others. But now place yourself in a work setting where you may feel more constrained in how you can behave. Take that one step further and put yourself in the shoes of someone instigating change… and then having to ‘manage’ it. How on earth do you do that when few people enjoy being told what to do? Almost none of us wants to be told how to feel, and those of us suffering change are also feeling limited in how we can express our emotions, if only because we’d like to keep our jobs.

There are parallels between managing change inside and outside a business setting because change is about people; it can help us to draw on these parallels. There is an art to managing change but there is also a process. For both leaders and sufferers it can help if we consider three tenets, regardless of whether we find ourselves in an office, a factory, a school, or a family. 

1. Acknowledgment and Sympathy

We cannot have change without loss. Something of the old must be sacrificed in order to make space for the new, and anyone suffering loss needs to go through a form of grief. The extent of that grief will vary from circumstance to circumstance, and from person to person. Losing a favorite pair of shoes is not the same as losing a dear relative, but loss remains loss even if the form, severity, and duration are dramatically different. 

When a business undergoes change, the effect of that change will commonly be assumed or ignored by leaders. Leaders think they ‘get’ you. Their assumptions mean they become diminished in your eyes. They really don’t understand you, just as you don’t get them either. 

When a manager ignores the effect of change it’s rarely a lack of care, and more commonly a lack of realization, a lack of time, or a lack of perspective. When a change is brimming with benefits, it is easy to overlook the possibility of loss. 

If a company is introducing a shiny new IT system, the message from the leaders will commonly be focused on how much easier it will be to work, and how reports will soon be ‘automatic’. They can neglect the seemingly irrational anxiety of the analyst who has to give up their labor-intensive spreadsheet. “What is not to love about this labor-saving new system?”, the leaders are thinking to themselves.

The analyst has invested extra hours in building this glorious data monster. They feel a sense of pride in having overcome the challenge. Moreover, this spreadsheet is just the way they like it: it has right column order, the right sorting,… the right colors. They are invested. It is hard to give up something in which we are invested. It is hard to give up something we have suffered to create, even if it’s a spreadsheet.

Compare this with your partner at home telling you that you need to throw out that tatty old t-shirt. They see something tired, and dated, and which lessens your appearance. What they can’t see is just how damn comfortable it is, nor all the crazy memories that are associated with this item of clothing. 

Each side needs to understand there is loss. Each side needs to listen, without bias. Each side needs to understand the change is founded on a good reason, or what’s the point of all the disruption and heartache.

2. What is the why? What is the vision?

“The way we’re doing things now is rubbish!” is hardly a message that fires up the world for a paradigm shift but it’s a format we hear all too often, presumably because it derives from our own pain. However, in helping others we need to step outside of ourselves a little. Our message needs to coalesce around both a positive reason why, and a clear vision of the future state. 

The why is the push; the vision is the pull. Both are needed. We can see the importance of this bifurcated approach illustrated in the political arena on both sides of the Atlantic. 

When the UK voted to leave the EU – Brexit – there were many reasons why: concerns over immigration, disenchantment with a bloated EU bureaucracy, a greater sense of control over one’s own destiny. It doesn’t help that there are many reasons why rather than a single defining purpose, but the volume and size of each reason does not invalidate a need for change, it only makes a clear and galvanizing vision even more important. As yet there is no such clarity around what the UK is moving towards.

The US, by way of example, is going to be great again, and they are going to build a wall. The leaders have provided a clear and consistent vision, and everyone knows what the vision is. Moreover, the why is also known because the people in pain were the ones who voted for this vision. (The whys in the US are eerily similar to those in the UK: fears over immigration, not wanting to be pushed around by the rest of the world, loss of job opportunities, feelings of being disrespected, unheard and forgotten.)

On the face of it, making the country great again is also a positive message, but what does it mean to be ‘great’? Everyone has an opinion, and that lack of clarity in the vision makes it ripe for being picked apart by opponents.

In business as well as politics, the people undergoing change want to know where they are going and why. Perhaps sensitivity and security preclude business leaders from sharing all the details but they can usually manage expectations: “we’re falling behind our competitors … we’re beginning a project lasting nine months… this will allow us to improve quality and reduce returns by 25%… it means less re-work for you… no loss in personnel… despite our best efforts you will experience some disruption… we’re assessing how much… a series of monthly update meetings we’ll be holding with you…”

If you’re hearing that message you might not like what it says but at least you’ve been shown respect. You’ve been treated like an adult, and all parties can move to the next step in the process together. Through honesty and an element of transparency the leaders have also preserved trust. That is easy to erode and hard to build. If the change is a particularly challenging one trust will become a most precious commodity, and every step should be taken to preserve as much of it as possible and for as long as possible.

Coming back to our old t-shirt, maybe your partner is asking you to throw out that tatty old t-shirt because they care about you. Obviously that care isn’t evident when they yell, “Get rid of that t-shirt; you look like a vagrant!” But perhaps they want the two of you to look good together. Maybe you could be freeing them from worry over what the neighbors are thinking of your fashion sense… or hygiene standards. Maybe your partner shouldn’t care what the neighbors think but maybe they shouldn’t be afraid of spiders either. Simply telling them to stop being afraid won’t make it happen. They have explained the why. They have created a vision of the future state. After that it will be your call on whether your partner’s fears and worries are more important than an old item of clothing.

3. United leadership

Transition is an uncertain time. It’s important that any leadership team (parents, directors in a company, politicians…) act in harmony with one another, that they visibly bring all concerns into consideration, and that they present a reassuring and consistent message to those affected. Easy on paper but not in practice. That’s why good leaders are as rare as hen’s teeth.

If two departments in a company are merging, and one department manager is using the opportunity to make a land grab for power, resources and control, the merger may well go through without a hitch, but it could sow the seeds of resentment and propagate disruption for years to come. It takes insightful and effective leadership by those in authority above this manager to identify the issue and to head it off. 

The UK’s management of Brexit would make a great case study for change management. In addition to lacking a unifying vision, they have divided leadership. At the latest party conference the former Foreign Secretary openly criticized the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit. This fragility in control has led the party to circle the wagons and they have opted for a unilateral approach in negotiating with the EU. A strong leader, with an inclusive and representative team, could have avoided what we’re now seeing, which might best be described as a repetitive game of  “or-how-about-this?” every time they go back to the negotiating table. Time is running out.

Leaders can do worse than set the right tone, remain consistent, and demonstrate by example. If your child has been wearing the same dress for the past five days, still showing evidence of Monday’s breakfast, you’re not necessarily a bad parent, but it can’t help if daddy is wearing yesterday’s t-shirt smelling of something other than fresh laundry.

Of the three elements in this article, weak leadership is the one where those suffering have the least control over proceedings. However, in the political arena you do have options. You could wait for the next scandal. These come around with great regularity, although many never seem to land a fatal blow. (I’m reminded of a wag who once remarked, “If Bill Clinton had been on the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk.”) You could lead the change yourself – if you have it within you – or you can vote:

Over 40% of people failed to even turn up and vote in the 2016 US presidential elections. In the UK, nearly 28% of people failed to vote in a Brexit referendum that was won by less than 4%.

I guess voting is the inconvenient price we pay for living in a democracy.

The above is far from the entirety of the change management process but without these three – acknowledgement of loss, a why and a vision, and cohesive leadership – you are on (as they say in the UK, and with typical British understatement) ‘a bit of a sticky wicket’.

If you need to give up your spreadsheet, it’s not irrational to be sad. If you are asking your partner to jettison that filthy old t-shirt with 15 years of wonderful memories, be kind, explain why, and listen without bias – don’t assume your reasons obviously outweigh theirs. If you’re guiding others through change be as consistent and as honest as you can. It’s on all of us to manage change. Leaders help sufferers, but sufferer also help leaders, and in so doing, by setting an example to others, become leaders themselves. 

Change is about people and everyone is different. In that regard we are also all the same. It’s a truth that change can be hard, but it’s so much easier with a little kindness, humility, and respect.