Managing the Mess of Change

When I give presentations on managing change, managers often ask how to implement change without all that messy people stuff. They don't actually say "messy people stuff," but that's what they mean. These managers don't want to have to deal with the resistance and objections and pushback and grousing and grumbling that so often accompany change efforts. And who can blame them? Who needs all that turbulence?

The reality, however, is that turbulence is a fundamental part of the change experience. Replace what's familiar and predictable with that which is unfamiliar, confusing, ambiguous or potentially risky, and people react. You can't eliminate the turbulence. But you can minimize the duration and intensity of the turbulence, and thereby implement the change more smoothly and with less gnashing of teeth.

The key to managing the messiness is to understand -- and really get -- how people experience change and to communicate with them in accordance with that understanding.

Almost any change (and sometimes even just the rumor of a change) upsets the relative equilibrium of whatever came before. When I ask IT professionals what recent changes they've faced, they overflow with examples: a reorganization, then another and another. A project cancellation. New technology or even "just" an upgrade. A new methodology. An abrupt priority change. A new CEO. A departing co-project manager. A move to another town (or to the other side of the floor). A rumored layoff. A promotion. And on and on.

With all these changes, people's reactions are often more emotional and visceral than logical and rational. Some people display shock, anxiety, fear or anger. Some become preoccupied, absent-minded, forgetful, distracted or fatigued -- even if they view the change as positive.

These reactions are both normal and predictable. And what people need most in order to cope is communication in the form of information, empathy, reassurance and feedback. What, when and how you communicate with those affected by change can decrease the duration and intensity of the turbulence. Here are some examples:

  • Let employees know about an upcoming change before it happens. Don't hold back in the misguided belief that you're doing them a favor.
  • Regularly update people about the status of the change. And if you don't know the status, let them know that, too -- regularly -- or they'll suspect you're holding out on them.
  • Anticipate some pushback as staffers come to terms with the change. Recognize this reaction as normal, and seek to understand their concerns.
  • Show respect for the old way. Change represents loss; don't trivialize the past.
  • Acknowledge the turmoil workers are experiencing, and empathize with their concerns.
  • Support them. When there is a dip in productivity -- which is almost inevitable during major change -- be as supportive as you can.
  • Educate people about the experience of change, so they understand that their reactions are a normal part of the adjustment process.
  • Most important, build trust in advance of a change so that those affected will be open to your ideas and advice. Otherwise, none of the above will work.

This is not to say that you should ceaselessly pamper people and give them all the time in the world to adjust. You still have deadlines to meet and commitments to fulfill. But by understanding the experience of change, you can more effectively tame the turbulence and minimize the messiness.

Naomi Karten (www.nkarten.com) is the author of several books and e-books, including Changing How You Communicate During Change. Her presentations and seminars help organizations improve customer satisfaction, manage change and strengthen teamwork. Contact her at naomi@nkarten.com.

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