Managing change

I've spent the past 20 years helping individuals and organizations thrive on change. Yet recently, I've seen business owners repeating their mistakes managing change. Have we learned nothing about managing change?

I don't mean to minimize the complexity and chaos managers face. Constant change can result from technology, a turbulent economy, reorganization, demanding customers and competition. And workers increasingly are skeptical about committing to business strategies that constantly are being redefined.

Therefore, success belongs to those who can maintain a resilient, positive and engaged work force while dealing with change. Following are the most common mistakes leaders make managing change and lessons to reinforce.


Not understanding the importance of people is a common mistake. Up to 75 percent of all major change initiatives fail because of problems with the "human factor."

A few years ago, after I gave a speech for NRCA about including employee input when planning for change, an audience member complained I didn't understand that his workers wouldn't be able to contribute much of substance. Luckily, another audience member disagreed: "You'd be surprised. I asked workers for suggestions and was overwhelmed. My only problem was finding time to implement all their great ideas."

The lesson is companies don't change; people do—or don't. But if employees don't trust the boss, share the organization's vision, understand the reason for change or become part of the process, there will be no successful change.

Another mistake is leaders often present change with too positive a spin. And the more they "sugarcoat" the truth, the wider the trust gap between management and workers. People need to understand the economic reality of the business and how their actions affect that reality.

Neglecting the emotional side of change can be a mistake, as well. Large-scale change can redefine who we are and what we do and can be physical, mental and highly emotional.

To be a successful leader of change, you must understand and facilitate the power of emotion. If people have been insufficiently prepared for change, their initial reaction usually is denial. When dealing with denial, it is important to frankly address what is changing; why it's changing; what people need to do differently; and what the rewards or consequences are, among other issues.

People then usually begin to have negative feelings—self-doubt, fear, sadness and anger. Allow sufficient time for the reality of the change to sink in, and then schedule planning sessions to openly discuss employee concerns and feelings.

Subsequently, people decide whether to support the change. Some employees move into new roles readily while others stand firm in their opposition—this leaves the undecided majority feeling like taffy in a taffy pull.

You can help ease workers' anxiety by giving them honest information about requirements for future success. Telling stories of employees whose behaviors exemplify success under the new model will recognize those who already have moved with the change and provide others with real-life examples of success.

Once people have agreed to support the change, they are enthusiastic and ready for action. The challenge at this point is to channel the energy by giving employees access to one another and necessary information. Encourage them to collaborate and experiment with various solutions.

When workers fully align with the change, it is a time for celebration and rewards. Single out the individuals and teams whose achievements were outstanding, but find ways to thank everyone for their contributions. Also, conduct a review at a later date to examine what worked well and what lessons can be extracted from the experience.

Final lesson

In a command-and-control culture, only business owners and executives are expected to solve problems, make decisions and set the change agenda. Such a limited view places an enormous burden on senior management and restricts the contributions of the rest of the organization.

The most successful change strategies are highly collaborative; developed in participative sessions, these strategies capitalize on the wisdom, experience and creativity of the entire work force.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international speaker, consultant, and author of nine books, including "This Isn't the Company I Joined"—-How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down.


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