Reconnecting after Change
There is a period between structural change and people catching up with that change and reconnecting with the organisation. This is known and well documented, yet much change still suffers from its effects. The effects of change on people in the organisation can be significant performance dips and disengagement, and it can take an agonisingly long time for the whole organisation to pick up again.
After working with many organisations and their leaders during change, there are some distinct lessons to learn. After so much that has been written about managing change, you would be forgiven for thinking all this is by now second nature. However, these lessons are worth emphasising, even if you have heard them before, since there is scant evidence that leaders of change are fully taking on board their implications.
Even though organisation changes make rational sense, there is frequently what might be described as a sort of 'lostness' reported by many employees as they make their way through the process of change. We often hear employees say "we knew what the organisation stood for before all this happened, we’re not sure now" – and "I think I can see what they’re trying to do, but it isn’t the organisation I joined". No wonder the received wisdom about the success of planned change is proven time and again, that often a change initiative doesn’t deliver what was expected, that good people leave, and many people feel disenfranchised and unhappy for far too long. This is the unintended and undesirable aftermath of change. Too often leaders declare victory much too soon. In the process of change, many leaders prove themselves to have been too eager to get back quickly to an even keel. Perhaps they seek to prove that they have managed the change process successfully. At all events, they often proved to have been premature.
Allow emotions out in the open
What is really needed to provide a listening and responsive period, where the critical role of the leader of change is to provide a safe area where people can report how they are honestly feeling, and then for the leader to work with both the positive and the negative emotions of this process of this transition.
The emotional life of the organisation is often undernourished during the process of change. This cause frequently boils down to managerial fear. For some managers, part of their fear is that if they open a Pandora’s box of emotions, that all that they will hear is negative criticism with no positive comments. Yet what the people in the organisation need is a period where their leaders of change provide a safe area where people can open up and really report how they are feeling, with the leader ready willing and able to work with both the positive and the negative emotions that emerge.
It takes a degree of honesty on the part of the leader, and skill; it is not for the leader to say "So how are you feeling about this change? Trust me". That is not going to bring about the right response; all it will bring about is a fairly mediocre "well, it is not really going anywhere" kind of response. People need to be allowed to speak out, without being judged or condemned as being negative and against change. What is needed is for the leaders to begin to provide some kind of modelling of openness and receptivity. This might involve the kind of forthright opening statement along the lines of "OK, I understand that not all of this is great for you and I have picked up disquiet over what has happened" .That begins to start the conversation of opening up. A key leadership message, then, is to open up the process and allow people to say what they really feel as opposed to what they maybe think they should be saying.
Create Short Term Stimulus and Challenge
Good listening needs to be accompanied by some stimulus; It is important to provide a degree of challenge during change. This creates some impetus and enough tension; not always making it 'nice', because if we make it nice and safe again too soon then some of important negative emotions and valid comment and criticism will be repressed and we will see the consequences coming back to bite us at a later stage. So be prepared to listen, but also put some challenge, some stimulus to get things moving again. Adopt a 'no hold barred' approach to getting problems and issues on the table. Then set short term goals to overcome difficulties.
Wise leaders of change will keep the atmosphere a little bit edgy for rather longer than it feels comfortable in order to make sure that issues have been widely debated and discussed. There must be enough air time for expression of negative emotions, which sometimes provide the kind of challenge that allows recognition when we are off course here and seeks ways to overcome any difficulties.
Implications for Change Leaders
So, leaders during change, don’t fool yourself that it's all under control. Let's hear expression of that difficult emotional stuff; it may save you and the organisation in the longer term.
Graham Clark is the course director for Driving Service Performance.
Watch the video relating to this article on the Cranfield Knowledge Interchange or download the transcript of the interview Reconnecting after Change.