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Change and uncertainty are becoming familiar aspects of working life. However, change does not have to be negative; the opportunities it can present may indeed be far more beneficial than first thought. It is imperative to understand the change, what impact it has on the organisation, your colleagues and you personally, and how you can get the most out of the situation.
Some statistics about change management
Research shows that most change initiatives fail to achieve their intended outcomes and may even limit an organisation’s potential and its people. Global Management Consultants McKinsey estimates that 70% of change initiatives fail to achieve their goals, in large part due to employee resistance.
This statistic is also quoted by well-known management writer John Kotter in his book Leading Change. Whilst change is difficult and some initiatives will fail, it is important that people understand the issues surrounding the change and equip themselves with techniques to support change management initiatives to avoid a 70% failure rate.
According to various surveys, by, for example, the Project Management Institute, the CIPD, and the Chartered Institute of Management, some of the reasons given for change initiatives either failing or being impeded through their implementation are:
- 62% of employees don’t like leaving their comfort zones.
- 45% of employees generally like to remain in the status quo.
- 64% of employees say their employers were not honest about the changes they would face.
- 29% of employees say there was poor internal communication about the change.
- Only 40% of front-line managers understood why change was happening.
- 17% of change initiatives have improperly defined scope and objectives.
- Only 60% of employees read internal communication emails.
- 73% of change affected employees reporting experiencing moderate to high levels of stress during and after change.
- 41% of management felt that organisational systems and structures impede change.
Being aware of some of these causes of change initiative failure can help to mitigate the issues.
Drivers of change in the workplace
There are many drivers of organisational change. In 2020/2021 the biggest driver has been COVID which has created a situation of uncertainty, rapid change, and disruption for all types of organisations, resulting in them changing their focus, expanding or contracting their activities and rethinking their working environments, and changing their employee engagement, business platforms, products, and services.
Other drivers of change include:
- Government legislation, regulations and initiatives such as Brexit.
- New organisational cultures, behaviours, working practices and skills.
- Efficiency improvements.
- Growth opportunities, especially new markets.
- Economic downturns and challenging trading conditions.
- Funding cuts.
- Changes in strategic objectives.
- Technological developments.
- Competitive pressures, including new entrants, mergers, and acquisitions.
- Customer and/or supplier issues.
Given these drivers, organisations need to effectively introduce and manage change to achieve their organisational objectives whilst maintaining the commitment of their people, both during and after change implementation. Often, at the same time, they must also ensure that business operations continue as usual.
Managing and implementing change in the workplace
It is vital to carefully consider the way any change is managed and ensure that those leading and managing it are properly trained and supported. Whilst each change situation will be unique, there are still some common themes that will help give the change process the best chance of success.
- A clear vision and strategy – People are more likely to accept change if they understand why it is happening, what it will entail and how it will affect them. Creating a manageable ‘picture’ of change helps people to understand how the new vision differs from ‘business-as-usual’. Clearly communicating the drivers for change (why it is happening) and well-defined desired outcomes and benefits provide tangible benchmarks for people to understand, aim for and ultimately measure in terms of how successful the change has been.
- Strong leadership – Actions speak louder than words. It is important that senior leaders promote and act as role models for the change. Identifying and involving relevant people (influencers) in the organisation irrespective of their roles, to drive and support change, helps to ensure that there is real ownership of the change from the wider organisation.
- Engagement and commitment building with all stakeholders – Identifying stakeholders early in any change initiative, carrying out a potential change impact assessment and developing an engagement and communication strategy helps to build commitment to change. Communication alone does not guarantee engagement. By spending time to really understand all stakeholders, their perspectives, concerns, and motivations and maintaining engagement throughout the entire change lifecycle, can help to build trust, so that they want to help make the change succeed and feel supported through it.
- An effective change team – Ensuring that diverse and multidisciplinary people with well-defined roles and responsibilities, together with the appropriate people skills and competencies, lead and manage the change will enable successful change outcomes. A change team with a passion and energy for their remit will play to people’s strengths and motivations in order to help develop understanding of the reasons for and objectives of change and bring people with them.
- A well-structured and integrated approach – Being structured (without being rigid) in the approach to change and being flexible when required, is the balance that needs to be achieved for successful change management. By matching the nature of change to all aspects, ensuring that it is the right fit for the initiative, its environment and the individuals involved, ensures consistency of delivery. Managing interdependencies across the whole organisation avoids silo mentalities and wasted effort. Having regular reviews and feedback to continually improve the approach assures even greater success.
- Assessing the success of the change initiative – It is not always possible to know absolutely everything at the beginning of a change initiative. The external and internal organisational environments can alter during the process, and it is very difficult and even unrealistic to evaluate a change initiative in the same way as other aspects of an organisation. The effectiveness and impact of change can normally only be measured effectively over time. Having a starting point for success criteria at the beginning of the initiative and relating a mix of qualitative and quantitative measures, including staff feedback, to the originally defined vision, outputs, outcomes and benefits is a helpful way to assess the success of change over time.
How employees are affected by change in the workplace
People are at the centre of many of the changes in the workplace. There are many emotional stages of change which can be experienced by employees when an organisation is undergoing the process, but every member of staff, whatever their role, is different. Some will go through all the stages outlined below and some will cope better than others, almost immediately recognising the benefits of the change and embracing it.
The stages include:
- Shock – “I didn’t see that coming”.
- Denial – “This isn’t going to affect me”.
- Threat – “I might lose my job”.
- Anger – “How dare they do this?”.
- Resistance – “If they think I’m going to alter how I work, they can think again”.
- Depression – “What’s the point?”.
- Self-doubt – “I’m not sure I’m going to cope with the new situation”.
- Acceptance – “I’d better learn to adapt; if you can’t beat them, join them”.
- Exploration – “What do I need to do to deal with the changes?”.
- Understanding – “Now I can see some benefits for me”.
- Integration – “Actually, this is better than I thought it would be”.
Change is often an emotional process and so emotional awareness by those leading and managing change is required to anticipate and plan for all reactions.
Managing and supporting others through change in the workplace
- Acknowledge employees’ feelings – Allow people to talk about how they feel about the changes. Let them get some of their negative feelings ‘off their chests’ in a controlled environment. This can be especially important when change directly impacts their roles, so you should quickly address any important issues that may be of concern to employees. In the shock, denial, threat, anger stages, leaders should adopt an Authoritative management style. Focus on telling, explaining, informing, listening, instructing, asking questions, and providing feedback. This direct approach is needed because individuals may not be in a position to take ownership or use their own initiative.
- Expect some resistance to change – Do not be surprised by resistance; even if the change brings a wonderful improvement solution to a problem that has been troubling employees, there will still be resistance to change. Comfort with the status quo is extraordinarily powerful. Fear of moving into an unknown future state creates anxiety and stress, even if the current state is painful. When preparing for resistance, spend time before the change implementation begins to look at likely sources of resistance. Focus on moving these individuals through their own change process and addressing the likely barriers for making the change successful. Effective resistance management requires identification of the root causes of resistance, understanding why someone is resistant, not simply how that resistance is manifesting itself. The best way to identify the root cause of resistance is through a personal and supportive conversation between a resistant employee and their line manager to address objections and move the employee forward in the change process.
- Establish a pattern of open communication – This has the benefit of keeping people informed about what is being planned, the reasons for the change and what is happening and when. It also sets up an environment where half-truths and rumours are not as likely to start. When people know what’s going on within an organisation, they don’t need to guess as much. Use regular meetings or updates via the intranet to let people know what is happening. Be open and honest – when you can’t reveal all the information about a certain change situation or event, be up front about it. People know when they are not being told the whole story. Cut off any rumours from the start by explaining that you will provide more information when you have all the details. The more people understand, the more they trust. When an organisation is going through any kind of change it is important to keep the lines of communication open as this is a time when distrust and stress are likely to be at their highest.
- Bring the change vision to life – Give people a sense of what it is going to be like when the change happens. What’s the roadmap, how does everything else fit, how will working life be different for the organisation and the people within it? Bring the need for change to life in ways people can relate to. Many people see change in organisations as negative. If you listen to and acknowledge employees’ concerns, you can address the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question that is uppermost in the minds of everyone, but not necessarily spoken. This gives you space to absorb the negativity while restating the positives for the organisation and the people in it.
- Transition phase caused by change – All change tends to be disruptive, and to expect people to simply pick up where they left off and carry on as normal is unrealistic. People are likely to need your support over the coming weeks and months to help them get through the transition to a new way of working. Helping people adapt to change takes time. Don’t expect instant results; some individuals can stay ‘stuck’ and may need extra help to move through the transition process. Model the behaviours you expect. It is important that people see you embodying a positive attitude towards the changes and where they may be heading so that they can grow in confidence.
- Recognise the adopters – While you are looking around to see who is adapting, it is important to recognise the early adopters; people who are changing and adapting quickly deserve support and praise. If you can find a credible way of rewarding their positive approach to change, it could act as inspiration for others to follow.
- Commitment and integration – At the commitment stage most individuals will have fully embraced the change, are committed to the future that it represents and become proactive in their approach. They are comfortable with feedback and are usually motivated to achieve the next stages of change. They are also more confident and energetic and the anxiety and fear that they may have been experiencing starts to fall away. Start to put a measurement process in place to establish the benefits of change. Showing people, the benefits can help develop employee consensus and provides an outlet for more constructive opinions. Giving people the opportunity to feed back as part of a measurement process can revitalise their approach to the new aims of the organisation.
Dealing with change
The following strategies will help you maintain a basic sense of optimism during times of change:
- Remember that you are not alone – More and more employees are feeling the effects of workplace change. We may not like it, but change is a fact of life in today’s workplace. When you learn to adapt to change, you can make the best of almost any situation.
- Acknowledge your reactions – As we adjust to change, most of us feel a roller coaster of emotions. We may wish that the change wasn’t taking place. Some people go through an initial period of shock, wondering, “What will I do? How will I manage?” At different times, you may find yourself feeling confused, angry, anxious or afraid. You may even have times when you feel hopeful or relieved about some aspects of the change. It is normal to feel any or all of these emotions, and the emotions you feel may come and go. Try to recognise and be honest about your feelings; it can help you work through them and deal with them in positive ways. This may take some time and you may want to set aside time to reflect on the changes and how you feel about them.
- Look for the anchors in your life – One piece of your life may be changing, but others are remaining stable and constant. Your work is very important, but so are your roles as a friend, partner or spouse, and parent. Focus on fun activities like exercise that can help you burn some nervous energy that you might otherwise spend worrying about work.
- Recognise that you may feel sad – Most changes, even those that we want, can involve loss. If you and your co-workers are feeling sad because familiar and trusted colleagues have moved to another department, are working remotely, or have left your organisation, it is important to take the time to acknowledge the loss that you feel and not to pretend that you are not sad. Acknowledging that you are feeling sad is usually a healthy and helpful reaction to a major change. It is the beginning of accepting the change and moving on with your life.
- Try to have a positive attitude – One thing you do have control over is your attitude. You can decide to keep yourself in an open frame of mind. Try to catch yourself if you are repeatedly thinking or saying things like: “Life isn’t fair,” “This is the worst thing that could happen to me”. Repeating negatives can lead to a downward spiral. Instead, tell yourself that it’s OK to feel upset, that life is a mixture of both happy and sad, that you can handle adversity and do what you need to do.
- Remember how you have faced difficult challenges in the past – How did you manage them? What worked for you then? Reminding yourself of your capabilities can help you feel more in control.
- Look for the opportunities change can bring as you move forward – As hard as it might be, try to look at this change as an opportunity to grow, learn and develop in new ways. Once you have adjusted to the initial change, you will be ready to start exploring other opportunities at work. Is this the time to learn a new skill or go back to study part-time? Think of all the possibilities and options you have.
- Try not to get caught up in rumours – Changes at work often create a lot of rumours and speculation. Management may not have all the answers to questions, and this can leave us feeling in the dark. Sometimes management may be limited in what can be discussed with employees. When things are unclear, people tend to read into the situation and make up things to fill the void and rumours start to spread. If you have heard a rumour that worries you, go to your manager or someone reliable who has access to the right information so they can confirm what is true and what is not, and encourage others to do this too.
- Avoid spending time with consistently negative people – To a degree, grumbling and complaining are a natural and healthy part of adapting to change; it can be helpful to vent and share frustrations with co-workers. But too much negativity can affect your morale and it is also contagious. So, try to steer clear of people who continually engage in negative conversation and gripe sessions.
- Look for ways to help others and your team – Different people in your workplace will be experiencing the change in different ways. Often people get so focused on their own reactions that the feeling of cooperation and team spirit diminishes. You may be able to support and encourage other team members as they are adjusting and doing this will also help you.
- Talk with your manager about ways to help you reduce feelings of anxiety, stress or overload – One of the by-products of a changing workplace is that employees often feel a greater sense of anxiety, stress and overload. Talking with your manager about this can help. One of the main reasons we resist change is because we don’t know how it will affect our jobs and our lives. In the absence of information, we become apprehensive and jump to conclusions. Use this time to talk about how your job will be affected by the change, your workload, the organisation’s needs, and to come up with ways to deal with change.
2020/2021 sent shockwaves through the world of work. Whilst some changes have been enforced, COVID has also been a catalyst to reinvent the future of work. New technologies are going to necessitate new roles; employees will benefit from being taught new ways of working and new skills. The events as they have unfolded in 2020/2021 have shown how fast we can all adapt to change and have demonstrated that we can move faster and act in more agile ways than we ever thought possible.