Why Change Doesn’t Happen

13 02 2010

Lets face it. Change is like breathing. If you stop, you die. So why is it so many small businesses fail to look at some of the basics when it comes to change in the workplace? I remember hearing a senior manager make the statement “I don’t know why they don’t understand, we sent them an e-mail.” Is there something wrong with this statement? (I should hear a resounding YES!!!)

We’ve sent an e-mail! We’ve communicated! We’ve told them what is happening!

Communication is one of the most critical aspects of managing change in the workplace, yet so often I’ve seen it done really, really badly. It’s frustrating to hear a business owner talk about a change in their workplace, to hear them tell me the problems they had with the last change, and then seeing them make the SAME mistakes again.

When it comes to workplace change, I’m talking about anything from redundancies, quality improvements, to implementing ‘new’ employee moral programs. If change happens so often, why do managers do it so poorly? “I don’t know why they don’t understand, we sent them an e-mail…..It’s not communication if you just send an e-mail.

There are a couple of BASIC strategies I’ve used to effectively manage significant (and less significant) workplace change.

Involve your People

Often I find that managers don’t get their people involved because the change is something that is ‘going to happen’ regardless of employee response. It could be that you are struggling to stay in the black, and the only option you feel you have is to cut staff numbers. Redundancies have a huge impact on your people, not just the ones who are made redundant, but also the people who are left behind. I’ve been on both sides of the redundancy line, and it’s hard for all – including most managers. They need to deal with the changes that are not fully realised until after the terminated employees have left.

The process people go through when significant workplace change occurs has been likened to the five stages of grief (See Stages of Grief Cycle). You have to understand that there is a loss, as with grief, to the way things are done. Loss of productivity. Loss of friendships. Loss of community. You cannot change the way people react to staff layoffs, however you can work with them to move through the issues that will arise after the change.

One of the best ways I saw this managed was by a GM who had to terminate 100 staff. In a group of about 2000 people, it’s still a big number. My advice was to be honest about the layoffs. I think his honesty with his people went a long way “if we don’t lose 100 people now, it could be 500 in 12 months”. No sugar coating.  No corporate fluffiness. Just the harsh reality that 100 staff would be gone in a month. The next thing we did was to arrange several small cross functional groups to talk to about how the changes impact THEM. It was a personal approach, and although the GM was not able to resolve every issue that came up for his people, he did get some really valuable information about the impacts to processes these staff cuts would have – things even he and his managers had not thought of. In addition, although the staff didn’t like the loss of 100 colleagues, they were more supportive of the after-changes (still didn’t like them, but supported the GM none the less). He Involved his people.

Constantly Communicate

“Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. Tell them again!”

You need to plan what your people need to know, keep the information regular, and put in place ways for your people to feedback to you their concerns. Put together a small team of representatives from across your business to act as advocates for the employees, and advocates for the change. Use the team to test how the messages may be received, what problems could arise, does the information makes sense, and KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Plan for the future

You should have a clear vision of what the future will look like once the change has occurred. Your people need to know that you see a better future for the business (ie even without the staff made redundant). Develop a roadmap (draw it up on some cardboard if you have to) so your people can see what will happen, when it will happen, and where you will be when it’s done. Your roadmap should highlight the milestones that impact the employees. It should be part of your overall communications plan. In addition, make time to sit with your people about a month after the change, find out how they are coping. Find out what impacts the loss has had to your systems, processes, people, and customers. Get THEIR idea’s on how to move forward WITH you.

Keep the momentum going

Even with the above strategies in place, there is the potential for things to get harder before they get easier. I suggested to an MD that we speak with a number of staff to see how the changes affected their roles. This was a company that had cut two-thirds of their staff (about 600 people). His response “We’ve dealt with the changes, and I don’t want to revisit old ground”. To me, it sounds like the MD had moved forward and was not willing to hear any bad news. The danger that I see with this response is that on the surface everyone will say how well things are going.

After such a MASSIVE change, people are afraid to raise any issues for fear of being the next one to go. This is the time when small issues are ignored, and can build to become serious problems. Because no-one is prepared to ask the uncomfortable questions, when the small things turn to big issues, there will be no understanding of how they got there!

After the change, keep the communication going. Develop a new roadmap. Keep talking to your people. Now I know that some staff will tell you they are not happy about the way the toilet rolls are placed in the dispenser, but if you are able to develop trust that you will deal with the little things, then your people WILL tell you about the big problems.

Don’t stop breathing.