“People focus their attention on what is potentially threatening to them”

01. October 2019 / general
resilience

In the first two parts of my trilogy about change, I explained the impact it has on people and how you, as a manager, can successfully master transformation periods. Today, the German change management expert Winfried Berner – who is renowned for his to-the-point advice – offers valuable tips based on his many years of experience in this field.

Claudia Kraaz: What are the biggest mistakes that leadership teams make during a change management process?

Winfried Berner: Let me start by saying that change processes are so complex that it is virtually impossible to avoid making some mistakes. But that is not such a tragedy, since social systems tolerate errors as long as the basic direction you are taking is more or less right. That said, there are unnecessary mistakes that have already been made thousands of times and should not therefore be repeated. In particular, they include not communicating sufficiently at the beginning of the process and in critical phases, bypassing people by not adequately addressing their fears and concerns, droning on about opportunities at a time when people are worried about their future, and so on.

With many change projects, it is also important to convince people of the problem before trying to convince them of the solution. Another classic error is to leave people to work out the details of the implementation process on their own instead of working through the details with them and addressing questions such as: What are the practical implications of the realignment for my area of work? What will that mean exactly when I arrive in the office next Monday?

 

Don’t play down threats

Which of the different phases of change (shock, resistance, crisis, rational acceptance, emotional acceptance/seeing opportunities) entails the greatest risks in your assessment?

The phases vary significantly, depending on the type of change you are dealing with. A merger is completely different to an IT implementation, and a change of culture is different to a workforce reduction. A good rule of thumb is that people tend to focus their attention on what is potentially threatening to them. Change communication has to address this – not by trying to play down the threat but by giving honest answers, even if they are unpleasant.

In the case of a workforce reduction, for example, the first question people want to ask is: Will my/our area be affected and to what extent could this measure impact on me and my colleagues? Initially, a change of culture is not in the least bit threatening – but the threat may come later, if the company says: We also expect you to change your leadership style according to the new guidelines, and we will monitor this and measure how well you meet this requirement.

 

It is not only affected employees who are worried – but also managers

What are your tips for successfully managing change?

‘Honest, friendly and firm‘ is a general rule that I‘ve found to be effective over the years. Naturally, it also helps if you put yourself in the shoes of the people affected by the changes – but also understand how those responsible for the change process are feeling. Their fears and anxiety are at least as relevant for the success of the project as those of the employees concerned. One example is the fear among managers of sharing unpleasant information but also of dealing with a particularly critical group of people, whom I call the ‘successful ignorers of rules‘, in a friendly yet firm manner. I am talking about people who are (almost) indispensable for the business but do not abide by the rules and will cross any solid line if it means they can get ahead more rapidly.

 

In your experience, how long does it take for a major change (e.g. a reorganization or a merger of two companies) to be completed?

That depends on how you define ‘completed’ – but I have the impression that this question has become ‘historically obsolete‘. It is increasingly rare for changes to be ‘completed’; instead, they are superseded by the next wave of changes. That is, of course, tiresome, because you increasingly have the impression of not finishing anything. That is why I think it is important – and why I always try – to consciously define certain points in the process when you stop and take stock of what has so far been achieved, record the insights you have gained and join together to celebrate your success.

 

No one can give us any certainty

People need security. At the same time, change is the only constant factor in our world of work. What advice would you give to employees so that these constant stress situations don’t wear them down?

I believe we must all learn that no one can give us security and that instead, we have to find a sense of security within ourselves and in our social relationships. I think it is a dangerous illusion, as is often the case in large companies, to raise false hopes by reaching company agreements to safeguard jobs. I repeatedly ask works councils: What do you think these guarantees are worth if the market collapses? Will the Board pay you out of its private assets? Ultimately, the greatest security we can have lies in the benefits we create for other people and organizations. In addition, it is certainly an advantage to live in such a way that you have some financial reserves and do not require every last centime of your income to fund your everyday needs and loans.

 

Winfried Berner (aged 65) is a certified psychologist and, since 1995, the owner of the firm DIE UMSETZUNGSBERATUNG, based in Mitterfels in Bavaria. Prior to that, he worked as a change management specialist at The Boston Consulting Group and as a communications coach and journalist specializing in psychology, among other roles. His website www.umsetzungsberatung.de provides an extensive knowledge base (in German) about the topic of change management and related areas.

 

The first two blogs on the topic of change are available here:

Chance – a source of stress or opportunity?

Change: what can you do as a manager?

©  Claudia Kraaz

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