Change Management: First, Stop Saying “Change”

“Change Management” is a necessary function with a terrible name. To most people, the word “change” itself is fraught with hidden meaning  — personal interpretations that can be negative and that can throw up roadblocks to successful adoption.

Do you think the word isn’t that important? People who hear the word “change” think of the following: “fear,” “new/unknown,” “power/control,” “resistance,” and “pressure.” George Carlin captured the power of word connotation perfectly in his explanation of baseball and football terms.

Some attitudes and perceptions about change are predictable and can be counteracted with a thoughtful approach. Here are a few suggestions for helping your project go more smoothly:

1. Perception: They don’t see the benefit.

Demonstrate the benefit — actual benefits, not corporate-speak. They may see the change as unnecessary and a waste of valuable time. They have competing commitments that already are taxing them and may see “change” as meaning “more work.”

There is another reason why people are suspicious of change. Some benefits can appear to be benefits but are wolves in sheeps’ clothing. They sound beneficial at first glance, but are, in truth, self-serving (e.g., grocery self-checkout kiosks or the online “HR” department with no human beings).

Counteract with:

    • Be prepared to name concrete benefits (and drawbacks).
    • Have a clear vision and continue to articulate it throughout the process.
    • Give clear simple steps to follow.
    • If there will initially be more work, say so.
    • Acknowledge that change is difficult and there will be an expected adjustment period.
    • Don’t lie or obfuscate — if there is risk, articulate it.

2. Perception: They feel that they’ve been excluded from the decision.

This feels disrespectful to people. Change is disruptive, and while there’s bound to be a set of people more affected by the change, the impact radius of change can be bigger than expected. Don’t let people feel irrelevant. And remember that even small changes can affect a wider group.

Counteract with:

  • Share the vision (and the decision making) early in the process with all the people who will be affected.
  • Give as much adjustment time as possible.
  • Include any and all stakeholders from the beginning.

3. Perception: This is going to be stressful.

People are creatures of habit, and change disrupts habits and causes stress. Change takes people out of their comfort zone. The uncharted and unknown is uncomfortable. (Think…first day of high school.)

Counteract with:

  • Allow time to adapt to the change.
  • Don’t dictate.
  • Don’t spring surprises during a change.
  • Baby steps on implementation, if possible. Let them get a toe wet instead of throwing them into the deep end. (Think … orientation day, Freshman Picnic, Biology 101)
  • Don’t be critical of the old ways. It’s insulting.
  • Work with ALL the stakeholders, not just the most significantly affected group.

4. Perception: They feel out of control.

They fear that they won’t have a say, that they’ll be out of control and unhappy.

Counteract with:

Leave room for choice and crowdsourced decisions. Optimally all important decisions will be blessed by the participants, but there is a way to make sure everyone feels included. Certain parts of any project are set by technical requirements or management buy-in, but the entire group can have a say in the relevant details. Wherever possible, let the group choose from among several equally acceptable options (e.g., blue, green, or yellow? include X, Y, or Z?) That way there’s inclusion without chaos.

5. Perception: The status quo is better than any new-fangled ideas.

“My comfortable current method is being discarded.” That makes people feel insecure or outdated. In a way, progress can make people feel alienated — ”Is the way I’ve always done my job worthless?”

Counteract with:

  • Create a culture of embracing the new, making updated and modern processes.
  • Create an atmosphere of rewarding those who are enthusiastic adopters.
  • Sometimes just saying “I know this might be difficult at first” goes a long way.

6. Perception: Change will create the appearance of stupidity.

People may think they won’t be able to learn new systems, processes, and ways of doing things. (“I’m going to look dumb.”)

Counteract with:

  • Build in training and document new information properly, with tutorials.
  • Provide the training documentation in multiple formats to address all learning styles.
  • Encourage stakeholders to suggest improvements to documentation.

7. Perception: Management (or their messengers) may not know what they’re talking about

They don’t consider the leader of the change to be credible — that person might not be known to them, or not trusted.

Counteract with:

  • Be ready to provide a logical rationale for the change.
  • List all the decision makers and remove whatever hierarchy you can. (Think “roundtable”)
  • Demonstrate the factors that led to the decision to change.
  • Combat distrust of “top-down” hierarchy models by being able to defend the decisions based on competent analysis, factually.

The psychology of change is fascinating. For more in-depth information, a great place to start is Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management. Even if you don’t read anything but this one book, you’ll have a seriously good understanding of the topic. Tangentially, persuasion, in general, is a fascinating topic. Allen Peterson, the @RevenueDoctor,  recommends Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

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