Change: What can you do as a manager?
In my last blog (Link), I explained how people are affected by change. Today, I would like to tell you how you, as a manager, can successfully deal with transformation phases – including aspects that you must pay attention to and what you should avoid doing. The top tips are: Give employees time to process what it happening, listen to them, share as much information with them as possible, and make sure that what you say is clear and binding. You can never communicate enough during periods of change.
Before any change process, it is vital as a manager to be aware of the reaction that change triggers in people. It is only by understanding why employees react in a certain way that you can manage change processes effectively. As I explained in my last blog, most people who are confronted with any changes that they didn’t initiate themselves first experience a sense of shock and then show resistance, since they are simply worried about the consequences.
It is important to recognize that resistance can have many different guises. The German change management advisor Winfried Berner (who is interviewed in my next blog) describes the following responses as the most important demonstrations of resistance: Harsh rebuffs, long monologues, endless discussions, patronizing remarks, being difficult to contact, scheming, ambush attempts, explicit or implicit threats, etc. Hence, the responses range from open aggression (verbal or non-verbal) to passive resistance (verbal or non-verbal).
No change without resistance
There is no such thing as a change process without resistance. It has a protective function; people show resistance when they feel threatened to the core. Back in the Stone Age, people had three options if they came face to face with a saber-toothed tiger: Flight, fight or play dead. According to Berner, the patterns of behavior are identical today – albeit at a communicative rather than a physical level. This means that the way you communicate as a manager will determine whether or not you can successfully shape change processes.
Here is what you should not do:
- Struggle with employee resistance.
- Exacerbate the negative mood unnecessarily, e.g. by showing resistance to their resistance or acting like a ‘bulldozer’. You shouldn’t try to break employee resistance, since Berner believes that this makes the situation even more threatening to employees. Instead, resistance should be overcome by means of communication and a large amount of patience.
- When addressing fears, it is irrelevant whether they are justified from a rational perspective. Berner describes fears as the ‘subjective reality’. A person who is afraid has a distorted perception and interprets information irrationally. Playing down the matter (“It’s not that bad after all!”) or trying to convince employees to see things differently is counter-productive. Face up to your employees’ fears. Let them tell you about them. As a coach, I have often experienced the fact that talking about an issue already provides some sense of relief, even if the situation itself has not actually changed.
- Be aware that every change is painful for people and takes time – a lot of time – and thus also requires you to be very patient. It is impossible to prevent people from being afraid.
- Try to recognize concerns at an early stage and respond to them in a communicative manner, e.g. by asking employees how they feel and what they need. Recognize employee fears and take them seriously. Allow people to show their emotions and be tolerant of their feelings.
- Fears trigger a need for commitment and belonging. Let employees know that the company will take care of them and that they will not be left on their own.
- When people are afraid, they tend to lose their sense of trust. I therefore recommend communicating as personally (not in writing) and openly as possible – with the provision of detailed information. You should also rapidly clarify what exactly the changes mean for individual employees. If you don’t know this at the beginning, indicate the point in time by which all of the details should be defined and identify where there are opportunities for employees to help shape the process. Any negative announcements should be made as soon as possible, since it is even worse to have months of uncertainty.
- Employees need to understand the meaning and importance of the planned change. Explain the background to it – repeating the message if need be.
- Ask questions, e.g. about employees‘ greatest fears, the worst-case scenario, etc. Ask what employees would do if that situation were to materialize. This makes people feel that they are being taken seriously and that they are still able to act.
- Become aware of the phase of change that individual employees currently find themselves in (shock, resistance, crisis, rational acceptance, emotional acceptance or seeing opportunities – see last blog [LINK] for details). What steps does the employee need to take in each phase?
- After a change is announced, the most important thing is to provide information about it, listen and show understanding. Purely rational arguments are of no use in this phase.
- Once they have got over the initial shock, many employees adopt a denial strategy, arguing that there is no need for change, as everything is going well! In this situation, you need to make it clear that the change is necessary and inevitable for reasons xyz.
- Once employees have rationally accepted that the change can no longer be halted, discuss with them what this means for them personally and support them in finding out how they can cope with the new challenges.
- To allow people to emotionally break with the past, it helps if you recognize the merits of the past, rather than criticizing it – this makes it easier for people to let go.
- If possible, allow employees to help shape the change process. Their fears will be dispelled faster as they will feel that they can influence their own future.
- Awaken the curiosity of employees. Offer them development opportunities. Focus their attention on the future, i.e. on opportunities, and encourage those affected by the change so that they have the confidence to take the next step.
- Facilitate and celebrate small successes. These strengthen the confidence of employees.
- Encourage and reward pioneers. They pull others along with them and motivate them to follow their example.
- Be aware that a spirit of optimism only comes once the changes are at least partially implemented.
- Manage your employees more closely than usual throughout the change process.
Patience, communication and inspiration are therefore the key ingredients of a successful change. And as food for thought, I would like to finish with a quote from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was Germany’s last emperor and ruled until 1918: “If you want to change your country, change your town. If you want to change your town, change your street. If you want to change your street, change your house. If you want to change your house, change yourself.”
© Claudia Kraaz