Harnessing the power of positive change

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No-one likes change do they? Well - some people do. Gary Wyles is one of them.

Change is often viewed as a negative and there are lots of statistics and market reports to back this up. There’s the oft-quoted figure that 75% of change projects fail. So it’s no wonder that business leaders, managers and employees view any type of change with a degree of trepidation. There is, however, tremendous potential in any change project.

Every project starts with hope. Hope that it will be successful. Hope that it will be a force for positive change, and it can be. It’s about harnessing the power of positive change and then keeping tight control over the reins. Change is not a one-off occurrence. In successful organisations, change will be a constant with multiple projects running concurrently. For training personnel, a crucial element is helping leaders and managers communicate effectively to their people about the reasons for change, how individuals can be positively included in the process and ensuring that employees are engaged and motivated to deliver a successful change project.

Effective communication starts with understanding and predicting the likely response from employees. It is unwise to expect reactions to be instant.

An interesting study by the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2002 found that the majority of employees do not want their colleagues to express any type of emotion – either positive or negative. We are taught from our earliest workplace experience to repress our emotions and restrain our reactions if we are to be successful. This can be described as a ‘mask’ or a ‘uniform’ that people put on when they go to work; they assume a role that plays to their strengths. It is only when a person gets to a position of power (and consider themselves unassailable) or when placed under immense stress and pressure that the mask might slip.

From a psychological perspective we know that personality is fixed in adulthood. We are who we are. What we can control is our behaviour and attitude to colleagues and bosses. So when there is a change in behaviour or attitude, we can presume that something has unsettled our people. Something has altered. Change is usually a significant factor.

In the 60s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the Change Curve as a method of helping people understand their reactions to substantial change or upheaval. This model is now widely adopted by HR and training departments to understand the different stages in response to change. The Change Curve is useful in understanding the emotional response but there is another aspect that affects attitude – the information response. These two together manifest themselves in a behavioural response, which is the only part of attitude that is directly observed.

When communicating about change, leaders and managers tend to offer information. They clearly lay out the reasons why change needs to happen. They present the business case, showing the figures and the working behind the plan. They produce a timetable looking at the different stages and steps of the change project. They look at the projections of what this means for the company.

While this is all very valuable information it fails to address the emotional response. Information doesn’t take into account where employees might be on the Change Curve. It certainly doesn’t reach them as individuals and answer their own personal fears.

There are five common reasons why people are predisposed to be against change. The challenge for those in HR, learning and development or training is to get the leadership and management teams to address each of these concerns. They need to be able to talk to individuals, probe them to fully understand their own reactions and then address each of these in turn.

There are five common reactions to change:

Fear of the unknown/surprise

Timing is everything. Communication should be planned to alleviate any aspect of surprise. While employees might have a fear of the future, by involving them early there will be a sense of control. Nothing unites people more than a common enemy and working together can be a very powerful force for change.

Climate of mistrust of the company/bad history

Perhaps there have been projects that have failed in the past. Leaders need to be honest about mistakes that have been made, why this project is different and that lessons have been learned. Trust will only be earned when leaders are honest, and when they act on what they do and keep their word.

No personal reward to change

It’s easy to think that this just relates to monetary reward or remuneration. That’s not always the case. People can be motivated by change and the possibilities it opens up for individuals. Perhaps it’s recognition, perhaps it’s learning new skills (supported by training), or perhaps it’s a new challenge for them.

Loss of job security or control

This is one of the most difficult aspects as sometimes leaders are hampered by business sensitive information. It could be that job losses are on the cards. Perhaps it’s because there’s financial difficulties and the business does not want to reveal the full extent of the challenges faced. Communication is not about laying everything out. It’s about being open about what they can talk about and what is as yet uncertain. Giving people firm dates about when information will be available is crucial. While no guarantees can be made, there should at least be confidence in the process.

Fear of failure

A change project can sometimes seem like a mountain to climb. Fear of failure creates procrastination moving forward. In all communication there should be a strong central vision about what the future could look like and then very clear steps that are broken down into achievable targets.

Training managers as coaches will enable them to work closely with their team to ensure that individuals are supported and encouraged to achieve success together and deliver positive and sustainable change.

Gary Wyles is managing director of Festo Training & Consulting

About Gary Wyles

About Gary Wyles

Gary Wyles is managing director of Festo Training & Consulting

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