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HR Handled Right

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I’m sick of reading about how employees are reluctant to change. I used to hear the same old story as a psychologist in private practice, although we used fancier terms such as ‘resistance’ and ‘defense mechanisms’. Employees are used to organizational change on a regular basis, and the lower they are in the rankings, the more they are expected to be flexible.

I’m not saying there isn’t something comfortable about the familiar; we all get used to things being done a certain way. My issues lie with the popular notion that employees resist organizational change just because it’s new. I see C-level executives obsessing about the exciting and glamorous vision they hope to communicate to employees in the hope that they will be sufficiently inspired to move forward. Often it’s not the destination employees are concerned about, it’s the journey.

To help your employees weather corporate transitions, they need to know what the journey from here to there involves, what the potential potholes are, where they can find the safety net, and how to pace themselves on the trail. It’s here the rosy picture often fades.

The path between the present and the future is rarely described with the same level of certainty as the end result, leaving employees fearing a perilous and leaderless journey ahead. Organizational change is an emotional event, with the emotional reaction resulting from a cognitive appraisal of the situation. These emotions predict how receptive employees will be towards organizational change and how much they will actively resist an organizational change effort.

Thoughts about, and feelings toward, organizational change are subject to reactivation as new information or reminders of the change occur, and with reactivation comes the possibility of revision to attribution and emotion, which, in turn, affects the employee decision to resist or continue resisting the implementation of the change.

Mapping out the Journey

The two biggest causes of transition stress are employees not knowing where a company is going, and when they feel as if they don’t have any control over how they get there. Employees need a road map of the entire change process, recognizing that detours may happen. They also need to know what part they will play.

Of course, this road map should be created before it’s communicated. Senior management must first decide upon the rate and degree of change the organization can absorb. If an organization has a track record of effective responsiveness to the environment, and if it has been able to successfully change the way it operates when needed, a major organizational change will be easier to implement.

Similarly, an organization with a climate of trust, social-emotional support, and organizational justice may be able to navigate a transition quickly and smoothly. If these are absent, a comprehensive program of management communication and leadership development may be needed before the change is implemented. A management audit is a good assessment tool to identify current levels of organizational functioning and areas in need of tuning before a major organizational change.

They must also identify the stages between the current and future processes, systems, structure and people. Each stage should be related to key organizational problems, needs and outcomes. A powerful way to decrease uncertainty is to increase the participation of employees in making decisions about various aspects of the process, particularly in the development of performance standards and reward systems that will directly impact them.

The Mathematics of Change Motivation

HR practitioners can reduce excessive tension arising from discovery of change initiatives by providing the news in a timely and credible manner. Employees should learn of change developments from management rather than from other sources such as the media or the organizational grapevine. Information should contain sufficient detail on the motivation, timing and scope of the change as well as decision procedures and transition support mechanisms.

Positive feelings about the change will occur when three factors – dissatisfaction with the status quo, desirability of the proposed change, the practicality of the change – added together are greater than the ‘cost’ of changing – time spent in learning, adapting new roles and procedures, etc.

An individual employee will need a level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, must see a desired improved state, and must believe that the change will have minimal disruption. In other words, the change must be seen as responding to real problems and worth the effort or cost in getting there.

Obviously, change communicators can influence employees’ perceptions. The change agent may try to demonstrate how bad things are, or amplify others’ feelings of dissatisfaction, and then present a picture of how the change could solve current problems. S/he must also convince individual employees that the change process will take time and effort, but will not be prohibitively onerous. Each employee will be judging the prospect of change from the WIIFM principle: ‘What’s in it for me?’

The answer to this question must be relevant to the needs and interests of the particular employee. Management initiatives strictly focused on concerns such as cost or budget may excite the CFO, but odds are they won’t resonate with beleaguered line workers unless they can see the personal benefit. Other questions employees will need answered include:

Why should we leave here?

Answer strategies:

  • Identify and talk about dissatisfaction with the current state.
  • Show how unreasonable the current state is as a long-term business strategy.
  • Show employees how the change will improve their job security/future/opportunities for advancement.

 

How hard will the journey be?

Answer strategies:

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but do give whatever assurances you can. ‘I don’t know how the merger will affect our organizational chart, but I promise I can tell you within the next 30 days,’ for example.
  • Be honest early. ‘The health plan after the merger will not be as generous as the one we have today. We were spending significantly more per employee than the industry average and we’re going to be scaling back.’

What will I need?

Answer strategies:

  • Spend more time talking about the ‘how’ you will achieve than ‘what’ you will achieve since the latter is readily understood and the former is always murky
  • Identify the job competencies changes the change will create for that particular employee and outline ways the organization plans to help the employee achieve them – such as through computer training, cross-training in different departments, etc.

 

Who will help me?

Answer strategies:

  • Consider doing an internal customer service training with your line managers before you implement change. Ask for specific commitments in terms of helping their employees through the transition – such as responding to a request for help or advice within the same day, communicating to all employees which co-workers can help with specific information and clarifying in advance how to readily access support staff, etc.
  • Clearly outline transition support services in your initial communication so employees will feel like part of a team.

 

A Little Insight Into the Psychology of Change

Employees not only need to feel good about the change process; they need to feel confident in their ability to execute the newly required tasks. Psychologist Albert Bandura called the judgment an individual makes about his or her ability to execute a particular behavior, ‘self-efficacy’. He also outlined four ways individuals learn self-efficacy around a particular task: through performance accomplishments, through vicarious experiences, through social persuasion and through positive emotional states.

Here are some ways organization can take advantage of this knowledge to create the necessary experiences to reduce employee anxiety and boost confidence, leading to improved performance and less emotional distress:

1. Create performance accomplishments. Past successful experiences with similar tasks will tend to raise self-efficacy, while repeated failures lower them. Savvy organization make sure that employees see how their old way of doing things has prepared them to successfully deal with the upcoming changes, provide skill training to build confidence, and stagger the change process to insure employee successes early-on. In short, they build confidence and skills at the same time.

Emotional buffer: schedule training with any new procedures and phase changeovers to minimize stress. Insure early success by assigning easy tasks or assignments, then gradually moving up to more difficult ones.

2. Provide access to vicarious experiences. Observing others perform the new activities successfully can generate expectations in observers that they can improve their own performance by learning from what is observed. The more powerful the role model, the larger the impact, which is why savvy corporations have a key executive justify the need for change, model and monitor the process, define acceptable performance, and demonstrate how improvements can be made.

Tension buffer: take advantage of the informal leaders in your work group. Choose a few of them and provide them with as much confidence, skill and clarity as you can – in advance of the rest of your employees. You can then use these informal leaders as change agents for the rest of your work group.

3. Increase management persuasion. Social persuasion refers to activities where people are led, through suggestion, into believing that they can cope successfully with specific tasks. Coaching and giving evaluative feedback on performance are common types of social persuasion

Emotional buffer: managers should be encouraged to invest considerable time coaching and giving evaluative feedback during the transition period. In their communications with employees, they should focus on conveying the ‘how’ of employee skill development rather than the ‘what you will achieve’.

4. Positive emotional states. A certain level of stress can be a motivator for change. However, emotional reactions to specific tasks – such as anxiety – can lead to negative judgments of one’s ability to complete them.

Emotional buffer: encourage employees to let go of their current practices, either by gradually taking them away, moving them forward, or providing incentives. In stressful times, people often revert to comfortable behavior; feedback partnerships with colleagues can be effective in reinforcing new behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Savvy HR practitioners realize that employees’ reactions to change will be significantly affected by their emotional reactions. These emotional reactions are greatly affected by past and current HR practices and policies within the organization. HR practitioners can reduce excessive tension arising from change initiatives by providing sufficient, consistent, and accurate information that is endorsed by a trusted and credible member of senior management.

They can encourage their organization to avert emotional stress in their employees by providing workers the opportunity to provide input and exercise some control over the pace, structure and decision criteria for change relevant to them. Furthermore, they can take a leadership role in helping managers anticipate and respond to organizational members most likely to have stronger negative emotional responses to change news.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz said, ‘Wisdom lies neither in fixity or in change, but in the dialectic between the two.’ Human resource professionals often find themselves right in the middle of that dialectic and can be a powerful force in moving their organization, and individual employees, toward a wiser future.

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