In both nature and the commercial world change is a necessity. Without change, what makes us successful today will be redundant tomorrow, and any competitive advantage that we hold will diminish. If the advancement of the markets within which we operate is inflation then failure to embrace change is the equivalent of accepting a fixed-income for life until we can no longer even afford to buy a loaf of bread. Change is evolution, and if you accept the theory of evolution, you recognise that without evolution you risk becoming extinct.
Yet many organisations struggle to effectively implement change, even where they recognise the need or the opportunity.
The DNA of any organisation comprises leaders, managers and general employees. In order for a change initiative relation to be successful the blend of leaders and managers has to be right, and the employees have to be on side with the change initiative. Leaders are recognised as the visionary people who will formulate the strategy for change and have the key role of pulling everyone in the direction of the change. Managers are responsible for the planning and organising involved in the change initiative. Employees, while they may have a technical role to play, are largely a psychological factor in the context of change management and arguably the single most important factor in the success of any initiative.
Anyone who has been involved in managing employees through change will know that quite often there appear to be individuals who resist change as a default response, regardless of how much the change initiative affects them as an individual, and often despite the fact that the change initiative may have a positive impact on their experience within the organisation. As a manager it can be frustrating when you do not either understand the resistance or empathise with the emotional response of the individual, however it is crucial to successfully managing the change that we understand what might be going on in the minds of change resistors.
Studies have shown that a significant number of change initiatives that fail, do so because of resistance to the change within the organisation. The resistance does not necessarily arise from stubbornness, or intentional malice toward the organisation. It has been recognised in both management and psychoanalytical research that resistance is a natural part of change and often individuals will respond to the prospect of a change as if it were a threat. Denial of the need for a change is the primary response followed by resistance of the change itself.
So what is actually going through the mind of a change resistor when the “ch” word is mentioned?
The primary psychological response that manifests in the change resistor is anxiety. Anyone who is familiar with the symptoms of anxiety will recognise that this is a significant psychological and physical response to any situation and furthermore is in psychological terms an unconscious reaction. It is also extremely unpleasant for the individual affected.
Understanding this as managers helps us to appreciate that when we experience resistance to change initiatives; this is not due to, as we might say in the vernacular “bloody mindedness”, but an involuntary psychological response to a change or from the viewpoints of the change resistor a disruption to their status quo, comfort zone etc.
So how does this knowledge inform decision-making when looking to introduce a change initiative?
As stated at the beginning, change is a necessity and what we shouldn’t try to change is the rate of change itself, but what we should do is have more consideration for the human response to change initiatives when undertaking the initial visionary and then planning stages.
Studies into change resistance have shown that often organisations excel at relaying technical and operational information about pending changes to their employees, but are very weak at communicating the actual impact of change initiatives to individuals within the organisation.
Seems pretty obvious. So what is the answer?
There is no “right answer” as to how we should approach the handling of individuals and managing the emotional response to a change initiative, however once we accept that we need to consider this as a key factor in the successful management of the change initiative; we have realistically already made progress. My own view is that effective communication, from the leaders of the organisation to the employees, of the nature of the change, the reason for the change, the implication of not changing and the likely impact for the individuals concerned would go a significant way towards bringing those who would normally resist change, on side at the outset. Such communication needs to be a continuous process throughout the life of the initiative and continue beyond the initiative to reinforce positive effects of the change in the minds of those who were initially resistant. By doing this we have the opportunity to gradually change the mind-set of those resistors with each new change initiative hopefully being more readily accepted.
This does not mean that we should assume after a few successful change initiatives that we don’t need to do as much of the groundwork in the human sense – this is always going to remain crucial to the success or failure of any change initiative.
The above considers the reaction of individuals to change initiatives; generally the above approach could be relatively straightforward when the leaders and managers of the organisation embrace the change initiative as they can act as change champions and communicate positively with the employees.
How does this differ when the change is forced upon the organisation by external environmental factors?
The recently introduced changes under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) has forced all firms within the personal injury sector to undergo change. As managers of these firms, we do not welcome the change and have in fact been strenuous in our resistance of it. This resistance is not based on unconscious psychological responses, so at least we do not suffer the same degrees of emotional response, but is a deliberate resistance to a change initiative that has a negative impact upon our organisations.
It is infinitely harder to try and manage our people through change initiatives and overcome resistances when we do not embrace the change ourselves. It is in situations such as these that strong leadership is essential, as we seek to make the best of a bad hand and enthuse those around us that we can manufacture opportunities for ourselves in the new environment, the ability to align individuals to a vision is absolutely crucial.
Leaders can be distinguished from manager in that the leader will generally have the responsibility of being the visionary and devising overarching strategies whereas managers are more concerned with the planning and operational execution of the strategy. Despite traditional views that these were separate roles and that leaders are born, not made, there is now an acceptance that certain individuals can operate in either or both capacities depending on the situation.
But how do leaders help our employees get through difficult change?
People believe in good leaders. They follow them, not necessarily blindly but with a great deal of faith in their ability to steer the organisation in the right direction. There is often a debate as to whether there can be bad leader because by definition if you are a leader you have followers and therefore have the requisite characteristics of a leader. The answer of course is that this is entirely contextual, but when in times of adversity the people that you hold as leaders remain positive, defiant of external threats and maintain a clear strategic vision which they are willing to share with you, it is far easier for you in turn to remain positive and while perhaps not embracing the change, be less inclined to operate as a resistor.
As an organisation in the personal-injury sector, we have been through this journey with everyone else. We cannot know the internal goings on of all the firms within the sector, however we are aware that in the run-up to the LASPO changes, we had a very clear vision of how we would be operating post 1st April and we had spotted opportunities presented by the reforms that perhaps other firms we have been speaking to had not.
This allowed us, rather than simply adopting a stance of resigned acceptance, to rationalise the changes within the organisation and explain the likely impacts to our staff at various points in the run-up to the legislation coming into force. More importantly the leaders within the firm have led the internal change process positively. Other firms we have noted have become embroiled in the rhetoric of the impact on jobs and the industry as a whole. While this is one potential outcome of the changes, it does not position those organisations well to continue operating at maximum potential due to the negative psychological impact on employees and therefore reduced productivity as a result may well lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This article was published in the PI Focus magazine.