Throughout time and across civilization, change has been the one constant. History books are bursting with examples of government, military, economic, and social change—some good, some bad. The same is true in the business world. From the trade guilds of The Middle Ages to the union factories of the industrial revolution, from the hard-wired cubicles of the Information Age to today’s distributed workforce connected by clouds, the world of business has always evolved. And it always will. In fact, the unprecedented, persistent, and rapid changes currently underway in organizations worldwide have made change management not only one of the most essential competencies of our profession, but of our time. Setting the stage for change begins by considering how change affects the organizations and people affected by it.
Change is good for business
In the 1800s, Benjamin Altman ran an upscale department store on 5th Avenue in New York City. Wealthy customers would shop at his store, and then Altman’s employees would deliver their purchases by horse drawn wagons. This practice continued for more than 80 years. Then in 1889, Altman began experimenting with an electric truck. Altman recognized the need to embrace change, and innovating his method of delivery not only helped him improve service, it saved his company lots of money. He was way ahead of his time.
Doing change poorly is bad for business
I had the privilege of working for B. Altman & Co. at its flagship store on 5th Avenue in the late 1980s. By then Altman’s storied company had lost its founder’s spirit of innovation. It was bought by corporate real estate venture capitalists whose plan was to use the iconic brand to bolster their own holdings, reduce operating overhead, and eventually sell it off. Instead they bled it dry. They hastily began carrying trendy fashions, cut many of the company’s signature services, opened stores in poorly located malls, and attempted to reposition the chain to compete with middle-American favorites like Macy’s. The change strategy was an epic failure and sadly, exactly 100 years after its founder innovated the retail industry, B. Altman & Co. was liquidated by a bankruptcy court and closed its doors forever. The economic, employment, and real estate losses resulting from this ill-conceived and poorly executed change initiative were enormous and long-lasting.
Not changing is a death sentence
B. Altman & Co. is not the only iconic brand no longer in business. You may remember when Eastern Airlines and Pan Am dominated air travel, or when Saturn and Hummer were trendy automotive brands. Perhaps you recall when virtually every city had a Woolworth or K-Mart store that sold Kodak and Polaroid film, or when Blockbuster was the place to go for movies you could watch at home. These companies were once leaders in their industries, yet today they are either out of business or struggling to hang on. What happened? Change. Technology, global competition, and environmental awareness transformed consumer needs and behaviors and companies that neglected to change were rendered irrelevant. To change or not to change is never the question.
Change management is essential
Organizational change is inevitable, so companies that wish to be competitive for the long haul must make change management a strategic priority and a required leadership competency.
I recently teamed up with several other talent development consultants to help a regional retailer with about 100 stores completely reinvent and rebrand itself. We helped create a completely immersive shopping experience, trained employees to provide over-the-top customer service, and enabled the company to significantly increase sales. As external consultants we certainly facilitated a significant and transformational culture change in the midst of what once was an extremely transactional grocery business. But equally important to the success of this initiative was the fact that the organization’s senior leadership had established change management as a strategic priority and a core competency for its entire management team. It took a village, and even then it was not easy.
Change is hard
Change is often hard to implement because change involves and affects people. People deal with change in a very typical pattern, called the change cycle. This cycle is a modified version of the grief cycle. For most people, their first reaction to change is denial or a sense that impending changes are just a bad dream. People in this stage say things like, “This cannot be happening!” It is extremely important to recognize when employees are in this phase and to provide concrete evidence that change is taking place, as well as a vivid and compelling vision of what to expect.
Next come feelings of resistance, a desire to fight against the change and whomever is responsible for implementing it. Resistant people make comments like, “There’s no way this is going to work.” Employees in this phase need opportunities to express concerns, as well as time to work through them. Attempting to force people through this phase can have consequences later. Instead, take time and listen.
When people realize change is, in fact, happening and resistance is futile they enter the negotiation stage. At this point they may offer conditional support or lobby for changes to occur on their terms. They may make comments such as, “Okay, okay. I’m on board as long as I can still _______.” When their requests or conditions are reasonable, meaning they do not interfere with the change effort, it may make sense to agree to a transitional period during which they may have their way – but be careful not to make long term promises you may not be able to keep.
The final stage is commitment, which is a willingness to actively engage in the change. People entering this stage have either seen or can visualize the benefits. As people begin accepting and supporting change they often make comments like, “Hey, this isn’t that bad” or even “Hey, this is great!” Like the fans of an underdog team that finally begins winning, most people eventually rally around change once it shows signs of succeeding.
The more efficiently we can help people move from resistance to acceptance, the greater the likelihood they will support or advocate for change—and the more likely it is that our change efforts will succeed.
Resistance to change is natural
It’s not easy to help some people accept change. Let’s face it, many of us tend to like things the way they are. The familiar is comfortable, and we’re biased toward information and ideas that confirm our preconceived belief that change is unnecessary. Sometimes we are afraid of the unknown, or afraid to fail, so we cling to the status quo. For others, change equals loss. They may begin feeling helpless because they will have to give up something of value as a result of a change. Some may even adopt a “victim mentality,” believing they have a right to things the way they were and that anyone who seeks to change things is attempting to harm them. Folks who view themselves as victims will respond negatively or reactively, blaming others and abdicating responsibility for their own feelings and behavior. This type of situation can be very challenging and is best handled by an experienced change professional.
As a leader, talent developer, and change agent it is vitally important for you to recognize that resistance to change is absolutely natural. Expect it and accept it, and do not take resistance personally. Acknowledge and address concerns, validate negative emotions, provide reasons for employees to become hopeful, and influence them to move beyond resistance and toward support. The rest is up to them.
Helping people transition from resistance to support is a process
Whenever we implement change, we can expect that 20 to 30 percent of the people affected by it to aggressively resist. These people fall into the “No!” category. They will actively lobby against a change and aggressively seek to prevent it. Another 20 to 40 percent will passively resist change. They may not speak out against the change or actively undermine it, but they are skeptical observers. They are in what we call the “Slow” category. A third group (20 to 30 percent) will passively embrace a given change. These folks fall into what we call the “Flow” category. They quietly accept but don’t necessarily advocate for change; they just go with the flow. The forth and smallest of the four groups (10 to 20 percent) will aggressively embrace change. This group falls into the “Go!” category. Think of them as ambassadors and use them to influence others.
It would be naïve to think we can use compelling facts or heartfelt arguments to convert all who aggressively resist into aggressive supporters, so avoid the urge to win everyone over. Rather, the idea is to help people move through this process one quadrant at a time. For instance, influence those in the aggressive resistance quadrant into the passive resistance quadrant. Then, if and when appropriate, you can try to influence them further and ask for their tacit support, and so on. In the end, there may be employees who refuse to be influenced. When you come across those who cling to the past and persistently resist change despite your influence you must have them removed from the organization. After all, the show must go on.
Change management is an essential competency in today’s ever-changing workplace, and setting the stage for change by considering its impact on those affected by it is always a great first step.
© 2016 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.