We may not always enjoy it, but change is an inevitable part of life that we all must experience at some point or other. This becomes evident quite early on in life, as we lose teeth and grow out of our favourite clothes. But while we often assume that progress and change go hand-in-hand, this is not always the case and if we’re not careful, we can experience change without any progress to speak of.
With this in mind, why is so much emphasis put on ‘change management’ in business, and why do we so often seem to think of progress as painful?
Many people seem to think of change and pain quite synonymously, but even more so when change takes place but progress does not. Consider change this way: when your baby teeth got wobbly and fell out, there was probably an unpleasant pinch, but this was the body’s way of preparing itself for adult teeth. That is change with progress.
But as human beings, it is plain to see that we consciously resist change with all our might. The torrent of motivational speakers and life coaching books that insist they can improve our lives with their step-by-steps, while pushing mantras such as ‘just do it!’ stand as testament to a perceived resistance.
Such ideas may get us round to thinking that we all avoid change like the plague, but this really isn’t true. We make changes throughout our life. When we get a new job or move house or meet new people, a significant change is occurring, so why is change in the workplace so likely to get our backs up?
I think that this problem originates in the workplace, and is the result of poor management.
Over time, employees become accustomed to a thoughtless and badly conceived style of leadership, which makes work far less enjoyable and causes general upset.
Often managers lack honesty and openness with their team, who they keep in the dark about important decisions that could actually be improved with their input. Further tensions are caused by managers trying to take too hard an approach to change in the workplace, making declarations such as ‘things are going to change around here’; this subverts the team and is really very patronising.
Your staff are your team, not your students or wards. It is vital that leaders start taking responsibility for the state of their company cultures and actioning change when they want to see it happen. In fact, abolishing the word ‘change’ entirely will probably get you off to a strong start, provided it marks the start of more measured and efficient progress.
Consider these anecdotal examples:
1. A new general manager joined the UK operation of a FMCG Top 20 company
The manager soon came to notice the staff’s frequent tardiness and general lack of punctuality, with late arrivals at meetings quite commonplace. So when it came time for him to hold a meeting with department heads, the imminent latecomers were swiftly told that the meeting had already begun, and that they needed to leave.
The meeting continued without them, and very soon a renewed company-wide interest in timekeeping was evident.
2. A VP was appointed the new CEO of a large pharmaceutical company
Her leadership style was immediately recognised as different to what the organisation was used to. Their former CEO had written long, eloquent emails, taken every opportunity to indulge in company travel and conducted large communal meetings with the whole staff present.
The new CEO kept correspondence succinct, kept travel expenses conservative and preferred talking to people individually. After a few months in this new position, company analysis showed some interesting progress: meetings were down 30%, email traffic was down 25%, and travel expenses were finally within budget.
These changes may not have been particularly arresting or dramatic, but they proved that leading by example is a strong way of implementing change in the workplace.
3. I was recently on a Leeds to London train, and struck up conversation with a group of young technology professionals travelling to a conference for work.
They told me a lot about the company they worked for, and several characteristics led me to think of the company as a progressive and mindful employer:
- Employees were more important than customers, and were treated well at the boss’s expense
- Risk taking was encouraged, as was public acknowledgement of mistakes so that others might learn from them
- They helped their community, donating old computers to local schools, sourcing locally and raising funds for local people in need
- Work-life balance was encouraged, staff left on time and took ad-hoc time off if required
- Employees were of equal importance, and would help each other
These three examples probably don’t strike you in the way you imagined workplace change to occur: there was no dictator of a boss, no threats or ultimatums issued.
Simply an unassuming adjustment in attitude that key figures modelled and others adopted once they recognised the merits for themselves.
Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, and while your mission may not be world peace, the principle is key. Lead by example and notice how quickly you are given the support of others.