How to manage change

13/07/2017
There’s an interesting activity that I run with two groups. The instructions for one group are to think of a time when they were initiating change and to focus on the emotions that experience elicited.
 
Aviva BerzonThe other group will be given similar instructions, but they’ll be asked to think of a time when change was done to them.

Both groups have to come up with words that relate to how they felt during that experience. The participants don’t know half the group has been given one set of instructions and the other half has been given a different set. Then the groups reveal the words they thought of to the group as a whole.

You start seeing there are two very distinct categories of emotions, where some people will be talking about feeling excited, empowered, perhaps overwhelmed, pressure, enthusiasm, determination, charged. Then you’ll get other people using words about feeling daunted and oppressed, disengaged and disenfranchised, and dreading coming to work.

People will be looking at each other perplexed because they can’t understand how the same experience of change is eliciting such different emotions. Then there’s an unveiling when I reveal that, actually, there were different instructions.

When you are initiating change, there’s a whole spectrum of emotions but it’s mostly positive because you’re feeling empowered. When you are the recipient of change, you’re often not consulted in a genuine way, if at all, and your life is often made more difficult.

You can talk about resistance to change but the fact that people are not included in the process is a very big factor.

One of the key messages, no matter what type of change it is, or if it’s driven by you or mandated from above, is to always find opportunities to engage people – not just consult with them and then do your own thing, but genuinely listen.

Natural preferences

Research shows there are natural tendencies when it comes to reacting to change. One diagnostic tool categorises people into three natural preferences, much like writing with your right or left hand. If you’re right-handed and I ask you to sign your name, it’ll be pretty easy. You’ll do it quickly without thinking. If I ask you to do the same thing but with your left hand, it’s awkward. With practice, you’ll get better at it, but it’s not natural. With change, it’s the same sort of thing: you have a natural preference. You can operate beyond it, but it’s not what you do in situations of high stress or unless you practice.

The diagnostic tool’s three styles are conserver, originator and pragmatists. Conservers like to maintain the status quo. You have to create a pretty good reason to justify change, otherwise; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Originators are excited about change. They love ideas and starting change initiatives. These two groups each make up about 25 per cent of the population.

The remaining 50 per cent are the pragmatists. They’re the ones who, depending on the merits of the situation, will either lean towards conserver or originator behaviours. If it doesn’t make sense to make change they won’t push for it. But if there’s a good case, they’ll be more likely to lean towards change.

It’s really important to think more deeply about the psychology of change because that helps you understand why things sometimes don’t move as quickly as you want. I use the model developed by Swedish psychologist Klaus Janssen and it takes people through the four rooms of change.

People start in the room of contentment: life is good, I’m happy, I’m going about my business as usual. When there are signs of change, people tend to move into the room of denial, which can happen slowly or more suddenly if they’re told there are going to be redundancies or the team is being restructured.

The difference between the room of denial and the room of contentment is you’re trying to maintain the facade of contentment. But there’s frustration and a sense of unease because you know things are changing.

The next room is the room of confusion and conflict. People tend to oscillate between denial and confusion. They move from, “This change is not going to affect me”, to “I don’t know what this means, this is overwhelming”, and then back to, “It’s not going to touch my role but I’m scared and I don’t understand what I should be doing next”. Imagine a rotating door and you go back and forth until you hit what’s known as the zero point. That might be an announcement saying, “Your role is being made redundant”, or “We are restructuring and your role is changing”.

It’s from this point that the hard work starts. If you’re getting on board with the change, you have to move away from contentment because that’s not viable any more. The world around you has changed and you have to adjust.

Eventually, you get some wins, such as a new role or a job offer. Then you move into the last room: the room of renewal. That’s when the effort is reaping its rewards. It’s a high energy, dynamic, creative space. Obviously, that’s not sustainable forever and you eventually return to the room of contentment but it’s a space now enriched by the change process.


Successful change

As a leader of change, it’s about recognising people move through these rooms and your role is to move them as quickly as needed for the situation. Change is about mobilising people and generating energy for activity. To do that, you need to connect on a personal level and recognise you’re engaging with individuals who have concerns, needs, fears, habits and rituals. Good change management planning has to take this into account. It doesn’t really matter what model you use, it’s about recognising there is a psychological journey.

Research into change management by Harvard Business School professor John Kotter found 70 per cent of programs fail. The seven factors fundamental to successful change are:

• Active and visible executive sponsorship;

• Having a structured approach;

• Dedicated change management resources, whether people or tools;

• Frequent and open communication about the change and the need for change;

• Employee engagement and participation;

• Integration and engagement with project management; and

• Engagement and support from middle management.

To be successful in leading change, you need to forge strong relationships and build trust. If you can listen to people, your job becomes a shared journey and makes successful change a lot more likely.

This is an edited transcript of the Melbourne Business School podcast Being An Effective Change Leader.

Aviva Berzon is a Melbourne Business School executive education consultant, specialising in change and leadership development, particularly influential communication and conflict management. She teaches on the Leading Change and General Management programs.

by Aviva Berzon