Bringing employees through the twilight zone of organisational change

Have you ever gone for a dip in the sea and been caught out by a rogue wave? Perhaps at that critical moment when a sizeable wave was making a play for shore, you just so happened to be facing the wrong way (or you might have been the gleeful person on the beach watching this amusing event unfold for someone else). If you’ve had this unfortunate experience, you’ll know it’s like finding yourself in a human sized washing machine; getting tumbled around and around before being launched back onto the beach. Coughing, spluttering and praying that one’s swimwear is still where it ought to be, the experience comes as quite the shock.

Poor change management can feel the same. Leaders make a big, surprise announcement that turns your working world upside down and you’re left to hold your breath and hope you resurface when the wave passes. The happy, good change management alternative, would be that you hear about the wave before it reaches you, with enough time to grab your surf board (following some planned, preparatory lessons) to swim out and catch the wave, riding it in a blaze of glory all the way back to shore.

The gap between when leaders see a wave (an internal or external factor that demands an organisation to change) on the horizon, and when it crashes onto shore (the change is happening) is where opportunities lie to prepare employees for change. Engagement surveys carried out by People Insight in over 125 organisations tell us that just 38% of employees believe that change is well managed where they work. Tom Debenham, Managing Director at People Insight, explains,

“Our data suggests that there are two key aspects impacting employees’ belief that change is being handled well. Unsurprisingly, these are 1) transparency – leaders being timely, clear and honest in their communication around the need for and likely impacts of change; 2) proximity – leaders finding ways to ensure that their people, particularly those most impacted by change, have some kind of say in the course of that change (at the very least in certain aspects of the how), and ensuring they are at hand to hear their ideas and concerns. People are looking for a degree of ‘justice’ in decision making.”

So what do organisations need to do in this this twilight zone of change to bring their employees along with them?

Define your change process

In the early stages of change management, you won’t yet have the answers as to what the plan will be to move the organisation forwards. Getting a plan in place for the change process is however a sensible starting point.

  1. Identify who needs to be at the table for planning the process. Is it just the Executive Team or are there other stakeholders or subject matter experts that need to be involved? Could an external consultant provide a fresh and objective view (hint hint, nudge nudge)?
  2. Is there a change management model that can help you identify that process? Kotter’s 8 steps (sidenote: I’m amused that spellcheck keeps trying to change “Kotter” to “Potter” – a sign of the times), Lewin’s 3 stages, or Hussey’s EASIER model are all viable options, each with pros and cons to consider when choosing what might be most useful.
  3. Whichever model you use, being clear on what success looks like i.e. knowing the answer to where do you want to get to? is key in helping you to define the process that will ensure you get there.
  4. Utilise any existing data you have that sums up the here and now. If you’ve recently carried out an organisation-wide survey, refer back to the results to benchmark your starting point pre-change. Are any parts of the organisation more vulnerable than others? If you had any open text questions, does the commentary provide any clues as to what employees will want to hear to be inspired by a new vision?

Narrative drives sentiment

Timely communications, set at the right tone, can really help to gear up employees for a transformation. This is nothing new. We all know that communication is vitally important, and yet it continues to be one of the biggest pitfalls. The organisations that do this well focus on timing, sincerity, and face to face channels.

The right timing means that employees hear from their leaders first about the event or thing demanding the change and the potential impact on the organisation e.g. a shift in the external market, an economic fluctuation, competitors releasing a new product, evolving customer needs etc. At this point, there will not be a plan in place to tackle the environmental shift, and the temptation is to hold off on communications until there’s a plan of attack. It’s the opposite that should be happening.

In organisations that have managed this well, leaders and managers are arranging face to face briefings to share with employees what they know, what they do not know and importantly, to listen to what employees have to say so that they feel valued in the process. Leaders tell it as it is, warts and all but also provide a sense of reassurance by demonstrating confidence that a successful plan will be devised, what that planning process will involve and how employees can contribute. Balanced messaging is key; an overly optimistic view of change  will leave behind a sickly sweet taste of sugar coated messages, but too bleak a view crushes motivation and evokes feelings of anxiety. In summary, communications need to be 1) timely, 2) honest, yet optimistic and 3) face to face, two-way formats.

How ‘ready for change’ are your employees?

In ‘Who Moved My Cheese‘, Dr Johnson introduces us to four characters. Two are mice, named Sniff and Scurry, and two are Littlepeople, named Hem and Haw. One day, their precious store of cheese disappears (the cheese represents whatever it is we want in life) and the story describes how they perceive, react and deal with the change. You can probably guess which characters struggle the most to adapt.

There’s a valuable reminder here that individual differences are a critical consideration for change management. The Kubler-Ross Change Curve provides a useful insight as to how people might react to tough messages but each individual’s attitude, thought process and personality preferences will influence their approach to change. Are you aware of your employees’ personality profiles and what that means for how they’re likely to react to big change announcements?

Online diagnostic tools, such as engage, developed by Dr. Jodi O’Dell at Engage Coach International, enable you to assess employees’ readiness for change. A tool like this is hugely valuable in helping you to tailor communications, identify and measure the results of support and interventions, identify change champions and those who are likely to be more resistant to planned changes. Mark Bateman, CEO of Engage Coach International highlights the benefits his clients have discovered using this approach,

“For the first time organisations are able take a data driven approach to change programmes. Not only can the right interventions be focussed to support the right people at the right time, the outcome of those interventions can be tracked.”

Dr Jodi O’Dell concludes,

“At its heart Engage provides a robust assessment of the intrinsic drivers to people’s change and development. Engage then provides a proven way to work with these same people to overcome barriers and leverage strengths.”

So when that wave is spotted on the horizon, define your planning process, increase open communication in face to face formats and get to know the profile of your employees in relation to change readiness. With any luck, the human washing machine experience in the change management context will be abolished.

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