Bridging the Gap: Successful Change Management in a Project Environment

Project management (PM) and organizational change management (OCM) serve as a bridge between where an organization is today, and where it wants to be in the future. Increasingly, there is recognition of the critical role that OCM plays in a project environment. Human factors affecting the successful implementation of a project include:

  • Speed of adoption: How quickly people take in the changes resulting from the project.
  • Utilization: How many of those affected are doing their jobs correctly as a result of the changes.
  • Proficiency: How many of those affected by the project are performing at the desired levels after the project has wrapped up.

Despite the importance of addressing the human factors that affect the success of a project, Change Managers (CM’s) with limited experience working in project environments can feel overwhelmed, sidelined, or under-valued. Project Managers (PM’s) who are focused on the project deliverables and technical details of implementation may not truly understand or value the contributions that CM’s can make to project success. While successful project implementation depends on an effective working relationship between CM’s and PM’s, this isn’t always the case. So the question is: How do we bridge the gap between these two separate, but inter-connected and overlapping areas of practice?

Drawing on our experience and findings in the research literature, we offer some practical suggestions to help increase the likelihood of successful implementation. Using a case study to illustrate and explore the issues, we hope to provide some guidance to help both PM and CM professionals identify and institute effective organizational change management practices in a project environment.

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Strategy or Culture? What’s Your Leadership Challenge?

Change was in the wind. As is true for many industries, the insurance industry was facing significant change. Making the shift from a regulated to a deregulated industry seemed a daunting challenge for the 100 year old RockSolid Insurance Company.

The question for the executive team was how to craft a strategy and initiate change in ways that would enable the company to compete successfully into the future. Despite facing potentially massive disruption, one department, the Tax Department, decided to use this as an opportunity to reflect on their values, strategic goals, and departmental culture.  In this article we present a case study and share some thoughts on one of the toughest challenges leaders face, the interplay between successful strategy implementation, and shifting organizational culture.

Leaders are typically quite adept at crafting strategy because of the direct relationship between strategy and results.  Strategy provides direction, clarity, and focus for collective action and decision making. Strategy connects people and what they do in their day to day work with the organization’s purpose and broader impact in the world. Without a strategy that is clear, relevant, and valid, it can be difficult to motivate and mobilize people to work toward and achieve, concrete goals.

Download PDF: Strategy or Culture? What’s Your Leadership Challenge?

Are You in a Communication Rut? Shift the Pattern, Get Different Results

Imagine that you are in a conversation when you suddenly realize that you have had this exact same disagreement with a co-worker, or a family member, many times before. In the moment, you can predict what you will say and do and what the other person will too. You feel compelled to act in a certain way, even when you know that what you will say or do next is unwise or unproductive. You cannot seem to help yourself. Or the other person! After the conversation has gone from bad to worse, you may find yourself attributing it to the other person’s incompetence, character flaws, or bad motive. You end up feeling frustrated and angry about how you and the other person did it again. Furthermore, you may be oblivious to how your behavior contributed to the undesirable behavior of the other person. You’ve just had an URP moment.

It can feel embarrassing to admit that despite our best intentions, our communications with others do not go the way we intended and that we could make better choices in the moment. Leaders and managers can learn to address some of these unwanted, repetitive, and intractable dynamics and shift the pattern to what they want instead.

Download PDF: Are You in a Communication Rut? Shift the Pattern, Get Different Results

Ghost Sponsors: Is the Sponsor for Your Change Project Missing in Action?

George was sitting quietly at the back of the room when he suddenly came to life. “But you don’t understand. All this talk about getting ‘sponsors’ on board is all well and good, but what do you do when your sponsor is basically invisible?” A roomful of participants nodded in agreement as George continued. “We can’t get sponsors to show up at meetings, they won’t make decisions that affect the project, they don’t allocate the resources we need. They might as well be ghosts!”

Active and visible support from senior-level sponsors is well-documented in the business literature on change as one of the most important contributors to successful change implementation. Key leaders need to communicate their support of planned organizational change. Clarity of vision, and consistency in word and action are powerful levers that sponsors can use to convince people of the need and urgency for change and to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Yet the experience of many mid-level managers attests to the reality that it can be difficult to engage sponsors and maintain their commitment over the life-cycle of a change initiative.

What can you do when you are challenged by ‘ghost sponsors’ who may be mute, or those who fade in and out of your change project?

Selecting a Sponsor

As change champions, we don’t often get to choose our change sponsors. Sponsors are typically selected based on their position, power and status in the organizational hierarchy, and these are important criteria when it comes to being able to advocate or provide needed resources. Daryl Connor suggests that beyond organizational position we consider a more personal set of characteristics, including the ability of the sponsor to develop effective relationships with the change champion and other members of the change team. Connor suggests that at the selection stage we assess several factors. What is the commitment level of the sponsor? Commitment must be deep, personal, and unequivocal. Sponsors should be selected who have a profound appreciation that people implement change. These sponsors understand that investing in the people side of change builds the organization’s capability to be successful with change now, and into the future. Sponsors who have some change related ‘scar tissue’ will bring their experience with past changes to the current change initiative. Select sponsors who believe that resistance is inevitable and healthy, and who understand that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities. Shifting our thinking to consider that the selection process for sponsors should be conducted as carefully and thoughtfully as selecting the next CEO signals to sponsor candidates, and to the rest of the organization, that change is indeed serious business.

Coaching a Sponsor

Effective sponsors are open to being coached. These are the people who lead with humility, who recognize what they don’t know, and who reach out to others in the organization who can help them be more effective in their roles as sponsors. For those of us serving as change champions, we need to be ready, willing, and able to coach and support sponsors: Do you have the skill, the experience, and the credibility to make it easy for sponsors to be receptive to your wise counsel and coaching about how best to move the change initiative forward?

Ed Schein suggests that leaders need to recognize that their personal success, and organizational success, depends on the contribution of their teams and  subordinates, and they should have the humility to acknowledge their own vulnerability and dependence on others. Leaders need to be able to ask their teams, “Am I doing this correctly?” and “Tell me if I am doing something wrong.” They need to be able to “abandon themselves to the strengths of others” as Max De Pree described it, recognizing that much can be accomplished by utilizing the diverse talents of their teams.

But it’s not always easy to tell sponsors how they might be getting in the way, or not stepping up to the plate. It can be very difficult for others in the organization to override an ingrained sense of deference to authority, and provide sponsors with troubling information about organizational resistance or other issues that may require a course-correction before greater problems emerge.

Sponsors have a responsibility to make it safe for others to provide this critical information, and change champions have a responsibility to learn how to communicate difficult information upwards in ways that they can be heard. Change champions need to be at the top of their game, prepared to coach sponsors, and credible in terms of their knowledge, skill, expertise and experience so that sponsors have a trusted advisor (Ulrich et al., 2012). Forging a solid relationship with sponsors is critical for change champions to be able to provide and receive frank feedback that will ensure the change sponsor is engaged, and keeping the project on track.

Sponsors Must Model the Way

While senior leaders and sponsors may have many skills that enable them to manage people, balance the budget, and generally lead effectively, it may be difficult for them to admit that they have no background or training in leading change. I can recall one conversation with a senior leader who told me that since he had been managing change his entire career, he had no need of any change management training. This individual not only refused to attend a training session planned for mid-level managers, but refused to introduce the facilitator who would be delivering the course, because he was too busy with other things. This sponsor failed to recognize the power of shared experience and common frameworks that contributes to change success. Imagine if this sponsor had at least participated in some of the change conversations, and listened sincerely and respectively to some of the challenges faced by his managers in implementing change.

In contrast to this experience, I have also witnessed the CEO of a large corporation who deliberately made time (and more than five minutes!) to come into a training session to talk about the importance of building the capacity of the entire company to better manage change. This was leadership…and sponsorship…in action! This leader shared a personal story about his own experiences learning about change, and how some of his assumptions had been challenged along the way. This leader/sponsor really walked the talk! The effect on the motivation and morale of those managers attending the program was both immediate and long lasting. Effective sponsors recognize and seize every opportunity to demonstrate in word and action that they are committed to helping their people lead change successfully.

Dealing with Sponsor Turnover

In some organizations, sponsor turnover is a very real risk to the success of a change project. Capable leaders may be on a fast-track for promotion, and may be re-assigned to another division or portfolio that removes them from the sponsorship role on your change project. This phenomenon occurs in both the private sector and the public sector. How can we as change champions be proactive in anticipating and dealing with this possibility?

Change guru John Kotter advocates for a guiding coalition to steer the change initiative. Ideally, a guiding coalition consists of the people with the position power to influence and guide the change initiative, create and communicate the urgency for change, and the ability to dedicate the necessary resources to support change implementation. In addition, members of the guiding coalition must possess the personal power that enables them to build trusting relationships with others across the organization. They must draw on their own personal integrity, and the credibility that derives from having expertise, experience, and a reputation for engaging others, and achieving results.  If sponsor turnover is a real and present danger in your organization, consider the option of involving someone who could act as an alternate sponsor if the lead sponsor is promoted or redeployed. This strategy might provide your steering committee or guiding coalition with continuity when key roles and responsibilities change suddenly.

The Sponsor Does Not Understand ‘Who’s on First?’

Lack of clarity about fundamental roles and responsibilities contributes to confusion, communication errors, and inefficiency. Sponsors who are unclear about the various roles and responsibilities that are critical to success are caught in a position of being unable to appropriately steer the course of the change project and ensure appropriate accountability for the completion of tasks. Just like sports teams, this fundamental premise of ‘play your position’ is key to success.

A project charter is a very effective tool to clarify roles and responsibilities, deliverables, performance metrics, and timelines. It also ensures accountability around the project. To ensure accountability, sponsors must understand, and help other key players all understand, what roles they play in the change project. However, when sponsors are not involved in developing the project charter, but simply presented with the final product by the project manager, they may feel disconnected from the project.

One strategy to ensure focused involvement of the sponsor is to extend an invitation to participate in the meeting to develop the change project charter. This task could be accomplished within a very specific and short timeframe, and allows all of the intended project players to participate in the conversation about roles, responsibilities, outcomes and timelines, key deliverables and accountabilities.

Involving the sponsor in setting the change project charter meeting affords an opportunity for honest and open, person-to-person communication about key requirements that are critical to the success of the change project, including an exploration of what the sponsor thinks is important, and what the change team needs from the sponsor. Sponsors with a better understanding of their role are more likely to be active and visible in their support for the project. Effective sponsors communicate the specific changes that are required.  Appropriate delegation of responsibilities by sponsors means communicating clear expectations. They provide a clear line of sight that enables individuals to connect their specific tasks and responsibilities with the overall goals of the change project. Sponsors who delegate appropriately provide this clarity, and ensure that others on the team have the authority, the power and the resources to get the job done. Sponsors who abdicate this critical responsibility quickly fade from view and become obstacles to realizing the benefits of change.

Conclusion

Out of frustration, we might be tempted to blame senior leaders for their lack of effective sponsorship. If we can avoid the ‘blame game, and stand in a place of curiosity, interest, and concern instead, we may be able to diagnose and understand the problem, and arrive at creative solutions to keep our change projects on track. Sponsors are only human. Just like employees, they too may need time to move through the change curve, and process their own emotional reactions to the intended change and the practical implications for the business functions for which they are responsible, as well as the broader organization-wide implications.

Nonetheless, Ghost Sponsors can have a deleterious effect on change implementation, wasting time, money and precious organizational resources.  Poor sponsorship can increase employee resistance to change, have a negative impact on morale, and make it difficult for the change team to accomplish desired results. Rather than time spent with the Ouija board trying to communicate with elusive ghost sponsors who inhabit the spirit world, I hope your future involves interaction with leaders who value authentic engagement with their teams, sponsors who can abandon themselves to the strengths of others, and in doing so, can make change happen.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, PhD is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management Program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education. As a scholar-practitioner she is interested in bringing theory into practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication.  She has delivered change management training to hundreds of people across Canada, and internationally.

 

References

Conner, D. R. (2012, March 13). Assessing leaders for change roles.  Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/assessing-leaders-for-change-roles.

Connor, D. R. (2006). Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper When Others Fail. New York, NY: Random House.

De Pree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. March-April, 59-67.

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W., Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

 

Participation or Pseudo-Participation? Change Agent Challenges in Implementing Organizational Change

Creating energy, engagement, and commitment to change initiatives is one of many challenges we face as change agents. Increasingly, organizations, managers, and change practitioners espouse a belief that involving people in the change initiative is important. Many of us would agree in principle with this philosophy: Participation is essential to successful change implementation. However, the practical dimension of how to actually accomplish employee participation in change initiatives poses a challenge to change implementers.

There are many benefits of participatory processes. Participation may help minimize resistance to change initiatives. It affords employees the perception of a greater sense of control during a change process. Control is an important factor in helping to address the feelings of vulnerability and other emotional reactions that employees may experience during change. When employees are honestly engaged in opportunities to contribute their ideas, suggestions, and creative solutions to real and anticipated problems, to express concerns and alternatives, the entire organization can benefit as people learn how to solve problems. However, despite embracing a philosophy that values participation, the reality of how change practitioners actually solicit and use input tells a different story.

What do HR managers involved in major change initiatives actually do to foster employee participation? Researchers Laurie Lewis and Travis Russ (2012) explored this question in an empirical study with 26 human resources managers. They investigated the actual practices that HR managers utilized to solicit and use employee input during major organizational change projects. The study identified four different approaches that are described below: open, political, restricted, and advisory.

  1. Open Approach
    The first style, the open approach, is an informal approach that invites people to offer their input and to talk about the issues involved in a change initiative. HR managers reported that employee input was more likely to be considered if the input was deemed to be “correctly motivated” and likely to improve the process, and rejected if it was “complaining for the sake of complaining.”
  2. Political Approach
    The second style, the political approach, was described as being more strategic in orientation, in contrast to the open approach. HR managers sought input from powerful individuals, regardless of whether the input would be considered relevant or important. Input would be used if it came from the “right people” who might contribute significant resources to the change project, such as money or other services. Given the high power status of those consulted, the change agenda might be altered based on this input.
  3. Restricted Approach
    The third style, the restricted approach, was the most commonly described method used by HR managers. Input was sought from key stakeholders: Individuals perceived to be most affected by the change, high performers, and those described as knowledgeable and savvy. However, input from key stakeholders was rejected if it did not reflect a majority view, was not perceived as relevant to the general population, or was perceived as unworkable. Unique comments, comments perceived as ‘venting’ or ‘lashing out’ and comments that were perceived to be self- motivated or not aligned with decisions that were already made, were discarded. Input was used to support the original change vision.
  4. Advisory Approach
    The fourth style, the advisory approach was the second most common approach to soliciting input. Input was sought from opinion leaders who occupied ‘pockets of receptivity’, those individuals perceived to be ‘thought leaders, strategic thinkers, innovators, and advocates’ who would support the change and be helpful in persuading others to become supportive. The purpose of soliciting input was to seek affirming information and, if necessary, to persuade these employees to change any negative perceptions of the intended change. Deliberate decisions were made to avoid the ‘complainers’ and in some instances, HR managers recounted examples where senior leaders dictated who would be interviewed—those individuals that senior leaders felt confident would provide the answers they expected to hear.

Examining what HR managers actually do in practice provides several important insights that can help us be more thoughtful as we strive to clarify the purpose and intent of participation. This study raises some interesting questions about our work as change practitioners. Are we as change agents engaging in “ritualistic participation,” concerned with soliciting advice from a variety of stakeholders more for “show”, advice that may not be taken seriously (Lewis & Russ, 2012)? Are we working within organizations that in reality support “pseudo-participation,” where managers give the impression of openness, but retain decision-making in their own hands? Are we focused on soliciting input that supports pre-conceived plans, or do we encourage honest and open dialogue about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a change plan? Are we consciously or inadvertently discouraging inquiry, the testing of assumptions, challenging the status quo?

As change practitioners, we need to be clear about our purpose in soliciting input, and how that input will be used. We need to acknowledge the inevitable tensions that exist between approaches that focus on persuading employees to get on board with a pre-determined change initiative, and approaches that are designed to encourage creative and critical reflection on the change vision and how to implement it.

Being effective as a change agent requires us to not only identify our own assumptions about participation, but to help others in senior leadership roles make their implicit assumptions more explicit. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves and others some tough questions:

  • What are the goals or intentions of the participation process? Is it to minimize any alterations to the change initiative?
  • Is there any potential to actually influence and change the intended direction and implementation plan, or is soliciting input an exercise in persuading employees to get on board with the change?
  • Are we just going through the motions of seeking opinions and concerns from stakeholders, concerned only about the optics?
  • Are we trying to make stakeholders more receptive to the change, or simply placating them by inviting them to give feedback?

There can be a danger in some of the simplistic, cookbook approaches to employee participation. Similarly, there is a danger in under-appreciating the skill level required by change agents to address the complex task of managing the tensions and challenges involved in soliciting and using input from employees.  Engaging employees and managers in open, honest discussion of the potential strengths and the potential pitfalls of an intended change initiative requires a specific set of skills in fostering dialogue, compassion, intestinal fortitude, and the support of senior leaders. As change agents, we need to help others learn how to express their diverse views and opinions in ways that might usefully critique and improve our change efforts so that we can move our change projects, and our organizations forward, empowering our teams, and ourselves, along the way.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed., MA, PhD(C), is a facilitator at Queen’s IRC.  As an organizational consultant and coach, Kate brings extensive experience in business, healthcare, government, and higher education.  She has designed and delivered change management and leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and leaders. Kate is passionate about enabling change agents and managers in leading and implementing change.

 

Selected References

Lewis, L. K. & Russ, T. L. (2012). Soliciting and using input during organizational change initiatives: What are practitioners doing? Management Communication Quarterly, 26(2), 267-294.

Pseudo-participation – Oxford Reference. (2016). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199298761.001.0001/acref-9780199298761-e-999.

Breaking Bad News About Organizational Change

Getting the news out about an upcoming restructuring, merger or acquisition, layoff, or other major organizational change can be a challenge. No one wants to experience having their name ‘pop up’ in a new organization chart that is widely distributed online before receiving any direct personal communication from their boss. Imagine if you showed up at the office and discovered that the reason why you cannot access your email is not because of a glitch with the IT department but because you have been dismissed, and no one had the courage to tell you. Organizations and managers have a responsibility to share such news in direct and supportive ways that enable employees to understand what is changing and how they will be affected.

Why is it so hard to deliver bad news to others? Perhaps you like to be the ‘nice guy’ and find it difficult to say no, or disappoint others. You may fear that you will become the target of anger and retaliation. Being the bearer of bad news can be emotionally upsetting, challenge our self-image, and disrupt relationships. Sometimes we face situations where our own beliefs and feelings, values and principles are in conflict. Caught in the middle, we might feel a bit ambivalent, or defensive, about the decisions made by the executive team, and yet we are the ones asked to deliver the message to employees.

Bad news is defined as information that has an adverse effect on how a person views the future, and impacts how people think, feel, and behave (Bies, 2012; Buckman, 2005). How we deliver bad news affects how people interpret information, and how they cope. It not only impacts the relationship between managers and employees, but may negatively impact the company’s reputation.

Some of us have not had much experience delivering bad news. Many of us have received little or no training on how to deliver bad news to our employees. If managers are typically inexperienced and unprepared to deliver bad news, what might we learn from other professionals like doctors, nurses, and law enforcement officials that might help us with this difficult task? Using a structured approach can help you deliver bad news to individual employees in a way that will result in less anger and blame, provide a greater sense of fairness, engender greater respect for you as a manager, and help people deal with change (Bies, 2012). Consider a process with three stages: prepare, deliver, and follow-up that can help you be successful in handling these situations.

Prepare

  1. Practice. Rehearsing before delivering such news can help you appear more credible to your audience. Rehearsal can take the form of mental rehearsal, or actual practice. Try practicing at home in front of the mirror to gauge your own verbal and nonverbal behavior. According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, our body language affects how others see us, and when we are being inauthentic, our nonverbal and verbal cues are misaligned.
  2. Manage the setting. Arrange to have the discussion in a quiet and private location. Minimize interruptions. Turn off the cellphone, computer, telephone. Consider meeting with the employee in his or her office, rather than calling them into your office. Take your time.
  3. Manage your own reactions. Delivering bad news can be emotionally upsetting for managers who may feel guilty, conflicted, and focused on avoiding the situation. You need to be aware of, and manage, your own emotional reactions before sitting down with an employee. How can you keep calm, professional, and genuine?

Deliver the Message, Build the Relationship

Communication takes place on two levels: the message content and the relationship. Breaking bad news is an opportunity for you to communicate the facts of the situation and provide the rationale for decisions that have been made. It is also an important opportunity for you to pay attention to the relationship. How you maintain the respect and dignity of the employee in the conversation and convey trust may have a significant impact on your credibility, employee morale and motivation, and your relationship with employees that may continue into the future.

  1. Provide some advance warning. Just like good drivers who signal their intentions to other drivers as they prepare to make a left turn, managers need to prepare people to hear bad news. Providing advance warning of bad news provides some predictability that can help offset the shock of bad news. You can start the conversation by saying, “I have some difficult news I need to share with you.” Easing into the topic gives people a chance to prepare themselves psychologically for what comes next.
  2. Be sincere. Face-to-face delivery of bad news matters. When bad news is delivered verbally, in person, or over the phone, people will perceive you as more sincere. Face-to-face communication encourages more immediate feedback that can help you clarify the message, reduce misunderstanding, and convey trust.
  3. Deliver with clarity. Give information in small chunks. Be clear. Repeat the message. You don’t want the information you are attempting to convey to be misinterpreted. Beware of corporate ‘doublespeak’ that may confuse the message in an attempt to make the situation seem less terrible. Saying one thing, while meaning another is a sure way to undermine your credibility. Test for understanding. Summarize the information you have presented.
  4. Tell the truth. Employees expect managers to tell the truth, and truth is essential to building trust (Bies, 2012). Lying creates intense feelings of distrust and outrage. Be direct. Give people the facts. Don’t sugarcoat the message. Help people understand the situation. Identify the mitigating circumstances. Explain the rationale for decisions that have been made.
  5. Provide an adequate account. People expect a clear, valid and reasonable explanation or justification for managerial decisions and actions. Doing this well can make it less likely that employees will blame you as the manager. Inadequate accounts, on the other hand, can be demotivating, resulting in less cooperation on the part of employees, lowered productivity, and potentially increasing the risk of retaliation.
  6. Explore, empathize, validate. Encourage employees to vent. Remember, emotional reactions are normal. Validate the person’s experience in a genuine manner. You could say, “This is not what you wanted to hear” and “I can understand how you feel that way”. Acknowledging feelings helps people feel validated. Avoid getting into a debate about the merits of a decision that has already been made. Listen. Invite feedback.

Follow Up

Communicating bad news may be the first in a series of events that need to happen to ensure a smooth transition to a new reality. Your role as a manager is to continue to provide the support and direction needed to help people manage this transition. In the shock of the moment, people may not process or remember all of the details. Follow up with employees by inviting feedback and questions, being available, and focusing on next steps.

  1. Invite questions. Invite feedback. Ask, what questions do you have? Gently probe to explore feelings if people have not expressed them.
  2. Focus on the next steps. What can you do to help employees to focus on the future? How do you provide a sense of hope for the future? What is going to happen, when, and how? Adapting to stressful events is somewhat easier if they are predictable or controllable.
  3. Be available. Invite employees to come back to you another time with more questions and concerns.

Managers play an important role in setting the stage around the need for change in organizational life. Not all change is life-altering. Taking adequate time to plan and prepare before delivering bad news can increase your confidence and your skill in having these conversations. Paying attention to the content and delivery of the message helps employees understand the rationale for change, maintains trust, and reduces anger and blame. If you act with integrity, people may not like the message, but they might respect the messenger. And that might mean they are more willing to work with you to make the changes that are necessary to create new possibilities for the future.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol

Kate Sikerbol, PhD (Candidate) is a facilitator with Queens IRC and an organizational consultant and coach with extensive experience in business, healthcare, government and higher education. Kate has designed and delivered change management programs, leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based and appreciative approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and executives. She is passionate about creating capability for change in teams, organizations, and communities. Kate is the lead facilitator for Queen’s IRC Change Management program.

 

Selected References

Bies, R. J. (2012). The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis. Journal of Management, Vol 26, 1-18.

Buckman, R. (2005). Breaking bad news: The S-P-I-K-E-S strategy. Community Oncology, 2, 138-142.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://www.ted.com/speakers/amy_cuddy.

Gallo, A. (2015). How to deliver bad news to your employees. Harvard Business Review, March 30, 2015.

Managing Emotional Reactions to Organizational Change

Can you recall a time when you experienced a major change in your organization?  Perhaps like others around you, you experienced a roller coaster of emotions:  excitement that at long last something was going to happen to change the status quo, confusion about the specifics of the intended changes, and anxiety about what it could mean for you, your team, and even your family.  Change can be disruptive, both professionally and personally.  Change can affect the nature of our work, where we work, when we work, how we make decisions, and how we communicate. Change can impact our identity, our sense of belonging, and our relationships with coworkers, clients, and customers.

Emotional reactions to change are a normal reaction to the real and perceived disruption that accompanies organizational change.  Successful change leaders know that understanding and addressing the mixed emotions that employees may experience can help employees feel motivated and committed to achieving their goals, implementing change, and realizing a new vision for the organization.

Emotions are psychological and biological responses that affect our minds, our bodies, and our motivation. Emotions colour our perception of events and influence how we make sense of the world around us.  Emotions are useful.  They help us evaluate the significance of events and assess the consequences.  If people assess the consequences as beneficial, positive emotions result.  If the consequences are perceived as potentially harmful, negative emotions may result.  Barbara Fredrickson’s research on emotions helps us understand and appreciate the role of emotions.  Negative emotions such as fear and anger narrow our focus, and limit how well we are able to be creative, interact with others, deal with complexity, and take risks.  Positive emotions broaden our focus and enable us to interact with others, experiment with new things, and be creative.

Yet some organizations believe that expressing emotions should be actively discouraged.  It can be tempting to interpret the mixed feelings that people express as resistance to change, and to view resistance as something negative, to be ‘dealt with.’ Employees may be expected to hide their emotions.  Employees who feel the need to hide their emotions for fear of being labeled a ‘resistor’ may end up pretending to comply with intended changes.

Managers may be advised to keep supervisor-employee relationships task-oriented and unemotional, but is this the best strategy?  Huy (2002) conducted a study of a large information technology company that was suddenly threatened by major global competition.  Responding to this challenge necessitated a major restructuring over a three year period that involved a shift to a market-customization focus from a universal service focus, turnover of the executive team, changes in the organization structure,  a 25% reduction in the workforce, elimination of seniority entitlements, and greater financial accountability.  The chief operating officer, sensing potential negativity just as a change project was reaching a crucial mid-point, sent out a memo to all managers stating that any expression of cynicism about the change would not be tolerated.  These managers were reminded that as they held leadership positions that they must display enthusiasm at all times. However, the middle managers who were most successful in managing change ignored this advice, and paid attention to the psychological well-being of company employees and their families.  These managers encouraged their employees to express their emotions. Some managers held one-on-one meetings with employees, while others met with employees in small groups.  Allowing employees to share stories—and feelings— helped them to develop a greater sense of control over the changes, improved morale, reduced absenteeism, and built trust between managers and employees.

Learning to address emotional reactions during change is crucial to individual, team, and organizational performance.  The managers who did attend to the emotional reactions of employees during the change implementation achieved greater employee commitment to change, higher levels of customer service, fewer cost overruns for overtime, and shorter time to implementation compared to managers who did not attend to employees’ emotions or who did so after the changes took place.

Whether your role is leading a team, or supporting others to manage change successfully, here are five tips to help you and your team as you embark on your change initiatives.

1.  Listen and legitimize.  Accept that capable and committed people will experience confusion, anxiety, and doubt, as well as enthusiasm for the change. Don’t try to talk people out of their emotions. Make it safe for people to express their emotions.  Provide safe opportunities for people to vent, one-on-one, and in small groups.  Allow people to say goodbye to the past and cherish their memories.  Provide support that enables people to move forward and embrace the future.  Encourage thoughtful reflection on, and discussion of, the emotional dimension of work.  When emotions are acknowledged, and people are treated with respect, people are more likely to engage with change.

2.  Create hope for the future.  Focus on the change vision and create a sense of hope for the future. In doing so, you can help people shift out of anxiety, and turn their concerns into curiosity.  Conversations about possibilities can inspire positive emotions of excitement, confidence, team spirit, and a sense of accomplishment.  Being open to new possibilities creates enthusiasm for what the future holds. Change requires a tremendous amount of energy. Sustaining change over the long term means tapping into the power of positive emotions.

3.  Encourage employee voice.  It’s a trap to dampen any negative feedback from people by insisting that everyone ‘be positive.’  Engaging employees in frank conversations about real and potential operational risks and problems can be very useful.  Frontline employees may have deep insight into the technical and logistical challenges that lie ahead.  Anticipating and identifying real and potential barriers before change is implemented enables people to engage in problem solving that could avert costly mistakes.  Encouraging employees to share their ideas and their feelings builds commitment to interim goals and the longer range vision.

4. Maintain a sense of humour.  Even during difficult times, maintaining a sense of humour can help both you and others to put things into perspective and avoid getting caught up in anger or anxiety.

5.  Understand diverse perspectives.  Empathizing with others helps us to understand different points of view and demonstrate caring.  While we don’t necessarily need to agree with these different perspectives, we do need to understand and acknowledge them. Ask yourself, If this was happening to me, what would I want to happen? How would I like to be treated?  Different groups in the organization may be reacting to change very differently.  Different emotional needs must be recognized and addressed according to the situation.

People who are fully engaged at work contribute with their heads, hearts, and hands.  Managers, team leaders, and human resources professionals who understand that emotional reactions to change can be anticipated and acknowledged are in a better position to harness the energy of emotions in productive ways.  Organizations with healthy cultures that support emotional expression are more likely to build employee commitment to change and implement change successfully.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol

Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed, MA, is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education.  As a scholar-practitioner she is interested bringing theory to practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication. Kate holds an Honours BA (Psychology) from the University of Western Ontario, a Master of Education from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Arts in Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University.  She is currently completing her doctorate in Human and Organizational Systems at Fielding Graduate University.

 

 

Selected References

Duck, Jeanie D.  (1993).  Managing change:  The art of balancing.  Harvard Business Review, November-December.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001).  The role of positive emotions in positive psychology:  The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.  American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Huy, Q. N. (2002).  Emotional balancing of organizational continuity and radical change:  The contribution of middle managers.  Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(03), 31-69.

Sala, F. (2003).  Laughing all the way to the bank.  Harvard Business Review, September.

Smollan, R. K. (2009).  Organizational culture, organizational change, and emotions:  A qualitative study.  Journal of Change Management, 9(4), 435-457.

 

 

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