Change Management Practice: Just do it – sometimes you have to act
I was giving a lecture on change management the other day and the class and I were deep in discussion about involvement and ethical behaviour when one of the students asked ‘but what if we don’t have time for all this pink and fluffy stuff?’
I was a good question that needed a clear response and to some extent my answer is a little surprising coming from a confirmed pink and fluffy person like I am – my response was ‘sometimes you have to act’. When an organisation is in dire straits and on the brink of failure or when to enter a new market a new process has to be implemented then there is simply no time for long discussions to get people on board the change manager has to act and get on with it.
What this means is we have to seize the moment and implement a new system or close down a department sometimes in the teeth of stiff opposition. The ongoing discussions needed to bring people with us or the time needed to make those in the process ‘make sense’ of the situation is just not available – we must act.
But does this mean we need to be brutal or cavalier in the way we treat people? – well no – we do not have to behave in this way in order to get the message across. The key is to behave ethically and make the process transparent that needs to be gone through and explain openly how the change process will effect the persons concerned in a clear and relevant way. People respect managers who spell it out as it is without and prevarication or weasel words – ‘Say it as it is’.
What this means is, if say, a department is to be outsourced and there is a good chance that substantial people we be let go, you tell the full story. Concretely: ‘Your department is being closed and moved to the new Company – you and several of your colleagues will have to leave’. You make clear the process that is about to unfold in clear words (the person will be in shock at this time) and tell them to think over what you have said and invite them back when they have had time to think it through to discuss their feelings and concerns. Expect defence and emotion, this is normal, but respond in a clear way – do not prevaricate – stick to the line explain the process and allow the person to internalise the consequences. When giving bad news as in this case leave no room for doubt of what is occurring avoid constructs like ‘you may be selected’, ‘there’s a chance that some of you may stay’ and so on. This only raises an expectation that they will survive. In the same vein if you are asked ‘will there be job losses?’, say ‘Yes I expect many will leave’.
I know this seems hard but research has shown that when bad news is to be given out people are very resilient as long as it is clear they are not being singled out (a fair process is in place), that there is a valid reason, and the process is transparent and applied equally. What we as managers have to understand is it is our job to treat people fairly and ensure their self-esteem is protected and they are given the grounds they need to rationalise what has happened. Aggressive, perfunctory methods of change management do not work (so put away the phone no texts that people are sacked) and are a sign of management incompetence or inexperience – do it right and your people will respect you as a person who treated them fairly in difficult circumstances.