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Navigating Your Employees Through Change

There are popular sayings about change such as “change happens”, “change is everywhere” and “change is constant”. This concept is well understood in the world of business; to be successful and competitive, one must constantly be fluid, developing new strategies and be agile to respond to changing market conditions and customer preferences.

Despite this understanding of change being necessary, many businesses often find it difficult when attempting to implement changes to policies and processes as they are met with resistance, disruptions and a mixture of emotions from employees. The disruption can be particularly troublesome as it can impact employee morale, productivity, and ultimately profits. Research shows that failure rates for change initiatives may be as high as 70%. This is usually due to a lack of planning, employee buy-in, and coordination. The good news is there are steps can take to ensure a smooth transition when implementing changes.

Jeanie Duck Johnson, author of The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (Three Rivers Press, 2002), identified the five stages of change that organizations may go through:

  • Stagnation: this stage is the catalyst for the change as signs of trouble begin to emerge. Reduced sales, increased employee turnover, loss of customers, etc. will become noticeable. As conditions worsen, management and other key personnel will push for changes.
  • Preparation: Management will make the decision to proceed with making changes to stem the downturn the organization is experiencing.
  • Implementation: Announcements will be made about upcoming changes in terms of new assignments, process updates, and organizational reassignments.
  • Determination: The results of the new processes are evaluated as employees continue to be trained and coached on how to properly complete the tasks and work with new leaders and groups.
  • Fruition: All changes have taken effect and are starting to (hopefully) yield satisfactory results in terms of increased sales, the hiring of qualified talent, increased efficiency, etc. Metrics can be used to measure the level of success from the changes.

Depending on the scope of the change, size of the organization, amount of resistance, etc., it can take a business anywhere from a few days to years to move through the five phases of change. Management may be chomping at the bit to move the process along; but they must understand that employees will have a range of emotions (anxiety, excitement, hope, fear, etc.) that may make them very resistant to the proposed changes. As such, the plans for changes should include suggestions to alleviate employees’ anxiety and pique their interest, hope, and buy-in for the project:

  • Be transparent: The office gossip mill will have its own version of management intentions that may spark fear and mistrust. Interpret the upcoming changes for the employees, explaining in specific, concrete terms what is happening, why it is necessary, what it means to them and how they will be impacted.
  • Open communications: advise employees that periodic updates will be provided as the process unfolds. Identify how these updates will be provided: email, weekly or monthly meetings, conference calls, etc. The updates should include key details as far as what has been done, any results as well as next steps. This time can also be used to get employee input as the process moves along. When employees can voice their opinions, they believe that their interests are being taken into consideration as decisions are made.
  • Be present: It is important for employees to see management involved in the change process, working and available for one on one conversations. Taking time to speak with employees outside of planned updates can help managers gauge the level of resistance as well as identify the issues drawing the most concern.

Change can be a very scary thing because it brings unknown factors. However, for an organization to compete in the ever-changing competitive market, they must be willing to take risks and make changes. At the same time, organizations should realize the value in their workforce and accept that people can experience wildly conflicting emotions at every stage of change and set about preparing a plan to mitigate those issues. They need to ensure that employees fully buy into change initiatives and make the necessary alterations in their day-to-day behavior–at precisely the same time their employees are likely to be most anxious about, and resistant to, change. If an organization can successfully address the “emotional maelstrom” that comes with making changes, they can grow beyond their wildest imaginations.

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