Change is back. Not the positive change that we’ve had in the recent past which is all about development and growth – that’s gone for now at least – but the ongoing pressures on businesses to change caused by the economy. The difficulties this will continue to create in both public and private sectors mean the nature of change has itself changed.
Today’s drivers of change are negative – we have to change because of the demands that are being placed upon us rather than wanting to change for the benefits that accrue. This does have some value – it is easier, for example, to communicate the need for a change if the need is as simple as ‘do this or we are likely to go out of business’. But, it has an effect on people’s responses to change and how we manage them.
Outcomes of change are rarely positive
With the challenges we are facing today, the outcomes of changes are rarely positive and are much more likely to impact on employees negatively. Take redundancies for example – very bad for those who are made redundant, but problematic as well for those that are left behind. In such negative circumstances it is not unreasonable to expect some resistance.
Resistance to change is usually caused by uncertainty
However, it is a gross simplification to just say that people resist change. Resistance has to come from somewhere – there has to be a cause. And in the current climate the cause is usually uncertainty – about roles, jobs, prospects, the organisation’s future – and this uncertainty has a debilitating effect. It makes people hesitant to act and unwilling to commit to change. It can also lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety and impact on peoples’ performance; at the very time we need them to be contributing to the maximum.
What then can we do in response to manage this uncertainty? There are some simple principles that can help reduce its impact
1. Accentuate Communication
Ensure open, honest communication. In our work with Yorkshire’s Best Employers, a coherent theme amongst the best businesses was the emphasis and effort they put into maximising communication with staff about the impact and implications of the current business environment. Completeness is key – ensure that the whole message is provided in a timely manner.
2. Adapt Leadership
Recognise that different forms of leadership might be needed. My work with Aya Fukshighe (see the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2007) saw that in Japan following the collapse of their economy people started to look for new forms of leadership, favouring approaches that supported them over charismatic leaders who they felt had failed to deliver the visions they were asking followers to commit to. We may see a similar and more widespread phenomenon with concerned employees.
3. Avoid Contradictions
Watch out for contradictions between strategy and practice. One problem with making decisions to respond to changes in the business environment is that we run the risk of acting contrary to the organisation’s vision, values and goals. We must respond but not at the expense of our ultimate aims. If anything the decisions we take should ensure we keep a focus on our core strengths to sustain us through the challenges.
4. Behave Coherently
Chris Argyris talked about the challenges caused by conflicts between ‘espoused theory’ and ‘theory-in-use’ – when we say one thing but our practices and behaviour suggest something fundamentally different is guiding what we do. Such inconsistencies are more likely when we are acting responsively. It is important with uncertainty that we ensure that what we say and what we do are as well aligned as possible.
5. Act Ethically
Robert Sutton writing in Harvard Business Review in 2009 makes the point that to be a ‘good boss in a bad economy’ we have to deal with people in a fair and just way and that when dealing with difficult situations the onus is on us to facilitate individuals’ choices and decisions. Allowing people to act in an informed way should underlie everything else we do.
This list is not exhaustive, but offers a starting point and begs the question – what else could we do to help colleagues and employees handle the challenges we continue to face?