The human being is required to change through all stages of life – these changes are sometimes subtle in nature, but at other times, almost forced. The changes include adjustments in approach, refinement to character, panel-beating one’s attitude and reversing bad habits. As expectations rise and more responsibilities are conferred on one by people in authority, the need to change is ever heightened. In many homes, parents struggle to get their little ones to be obedient and not to do things that might harm them. Teenagers are encouraged to think rationally and make sensible choices about their lives. In the work environment, because of the business need to remain competitive and grow sustainably, employees are urged to get out of comfort zones and re-align themselves to new strategies and business approaches. These changes are often difficult to accomplish, especially when having to deal with natural resistance to any change that is expected.
For home and work alike, change is more easily realised when people interact regarding the intended change, not when they are told to change. Dialogue around opportunities and pitfalls, joint problem-solving and co-creation of potential solutions involves all concerned and gives everyone a sense of ownership for the hard work necessary to achieve the new goals. Telling people to change, on the other hand, usually solicits resistance. People dig their heels in and fight the onset of change, especially if they have to do things differently and “become” something that they haven’t been before. This is frightening and the fear produces the resistance.
In large-scale change initiatives, many companies make the mistake of investing substantial amounts of money in consultants, road-shows, systems, internal advertising collateral and new equipment, without reserving enough money to spend on interacting with, training and supporting employees through the change process. The consultants leave once the initiative has been implemented, but the employees are left to cope with the task of embedding the change, often losing momentum in this process through lack of support. It is at this point, however, that affected stakeholders should actually receive exceptional support – forums, problem-solving groups, dialogue regarding fears and difficulties, openness and transparency from leadership and a nurturing seedbed to allow the change to “stick” and become part of the new operating environment of the company. Being involved in the change-readiness process and having a voice has the effect of empowering employees and is a very valuable intervention in its own right.
Ivan Overton, Jannie du Toit and Marilise Smit (Five Fundamental Observations about Managing Change) note: “People will change – sometimes by seeing the light, but more often by feeling the heat”. Those affected by the pending change therefore should not simply be “told” about the change before it happens. There should be less hype and more real interaction. People change when they talk, not when they are told. Role-plays and scenario planning could be facilitated, for example, where employees can experience the “heat” of real change interaction – desirable and undesirable behaviour is modelled in this example and behaviour expectations are set. Furthermore, the leadership should be explicit regarding the assistance and support the company is offering during the change process to give employees some level of comfort – help is at hand!
The above authors note six mechanisms to “create heat” (making the situation less comfortable and thereby introducing and accelerating the intended change):
- Targeted dialogue
- Peer pressure
- The careful introduction of elements of competition among different organisational units
- Realignment of performance management agreements
- Applying leverage through mechanisms for reward and recognition
- Increasing management pressure for change
Whilst largely agreeing with them in principle, an empathic environment needs to be created where real care is demonstrated, time is given for information to be digested and fears of discrimination are removed (in this case, there needs to be a freedom from the fear that voicing concerns or questioning will be interpreted as resistance).
People change when they interact, not when they are told. Providing an environment, a safe space where emotional content can be discussed openly and transparently, is an essential change leadership task. Employees are more likely to take responsibility and move the change forward when they perceive real care from leadership and when they are given an opportunity to talk and participate in the formulation of the change initiative themselves.