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Teams Ride the Waves of Change

by Suzanne Willis Zoglio, Ph.D.

Managers can use positive implementation
techniques to minimize most obstacles to change.

In today's tempestuous business climate, staying competitive means skillfully riding the waves of change. Companies must know how to navigate uncharted waters, shift with the changing tides and remain buoyant even when knocked off balance. Clearly, successful change management is critical to any work team's success.

Yet in a recent study surveying 4,300 U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, 54 percent of the managers cited employee resistance as a major impediment to change. In the same study, 40 percent of hourly employees (vs. only 16 percent of managers) cited a lack of management visibility and support as a major impediment to change. Two things are apparent from this study: Resistance to change is quite common in the workplace, and we can minimize such resistance by paying more attention to the people side of change.

Today's managers are charged with implementing a wide variety of changes, including technological (e.g., automatic identification systems for inventory control, electronic mail, computerized order processing), structural (most infamously, reengineering) and cultural (e.g., quality, service, empowerment, teamwork). Two strategies will help get the job done: learning more about people's response to change and using positive change implementation techniques.

Understanding response to change

Most of us experience some apprehension about change. Even positive changes such as a promotion, marriage or new baby can be stressful. But when change is perceived as negative, normal stress can turn into strong resistance. Such resistance often stems from fear of the unknown, discomfort of having to do things differently, perceived threat to job security or status, loss of control and even disturbed social patterns (e.g., having to work with different people).

When faced with changes at work, people generally ask themselves two questions: Can I do it? Do I want to do it? The first is an ability question. We ask ourselves if our knowledge, skills and temperament will be adequate to manage the change. Will we learn fast enough? Will we look stupid? Lose status? The second question is a comfort question. We want to know if any potential gain is worth the anticipated pain of breaking out of our comfort zone. And to make matters worse for those leading change efforts, not everyone responds to change with the same intensity.

Response to change is influenced by individual factors such as personal perception of benefits, past experiences with change, frequency and magnitude of recent life changes, self-confidence, problem-solving abilities and the availability of a support system.

Although employees vary in their level of change resistance, managers can use positive implementation techniques to minimize most obstacles to change and accelerate a return to productivity. Workplace changes can benefit from the following three techniques: anticipation, communication and support.

Anticipating reactions to change

Before sending out that memo, calling an all-hands meeting or distributing a videotaped message from senior management, consider which departments and employees will be affected most by this particular change. Will it break up units, force competitors to collaborate, increase the diversity of work groups? What technical issues will arise regarding how work gets done? And in what way will change alter status, power and influence?

With these questions answered, you will be able to identify probable blocks as well as counterbalancing incentives to drive this change. In other words, employees' perceptions (not yours) of the change's pluses and minuses will start to take shape. It's important to look at the change from the employees' point of view as you identify possible blocks and incentives because your own perspective may be quite different.

Communicating impending change

If you spend time thinking about what is important to the employees affected, and in what ways they might feel threatened by the pending change (e.g., job security, ability to succeed, workload, status, independence, job challenge), you won't get blindsided in early dialogues about the change, and you'll be better prepared to deal with questions and concerns. The earliest communication should concern the what, why, how and when of the change.

Communicate the big picture briefly and focus on information that directly affects the audience you are addressing. Be honest about the change's potential benefits as well as any drawbacks, but communicate confidence as well -- in the plan, the leadership and your employees' ability to succeed.

Plan for frequent updates about the change as it progresses. The one-shot-and-done style isn't adequate for most complicated organizational changes. Whether you're spending $50,000 or $250,000 on new equipment or systems, it makes good business sense to protect that investment by tending to the people who can either make or break the change.

Make sure your change communication plan allows for two-way exchanges. You want to know what employees think they heard you say, understand their reactions to what they heard and address any questions or concerns they may have. Be confident, but ask for help in orchestrating a smooth transition. Solicit ideas about how to implement the change most effectively. And announce whatever support -- training, coaching, dual systems -- will be available to help those involved in the change.

Supporting work teams

To implement change successfully, leaders need to support work teams most affected by the change. Such support can vary and should be driven by individual and team needs. Allow time for venting and training, provide resources such as tapes and books, and increase your visibility. The trick is to actively solicit suggestions regarding team needs and provide that support in a timely fashion. Don't provide what you think employees need or should need; find out what would really make a difference and provide that. Recognizing important milestones during the transition also is supportive (e.g., celebrating when the first phase is complete or when a work team has finished training). Such recognition gives people confidence in the process and assures them that the pain actually is producing some gain.

The next time you're asked to lead a workplace change, balance your attention to the technical side of change with attention to the human side. By anticipating, communicating and supporting, you'll increase your team's adaptability and increase your organization's competitiveness as the waves of change keep rolling in.

About the author

Suzanne Willis Zoglio, Ph.D., is an organizational development consultant, keynote speaker and the author of Teams At Work: 7 Keys To Success and The Participative Leader. For a free copy of her Pocket Guide to Managing Change, call Tower Hill Press at (888) 370-8807 and mention this article.


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