Managing the people side of change can be more challenging than handling any market downturn or competitive pressure. And as we learned in January's "Leading Edge," effectively managing change means managing the people side of change–namely, employees' negative and positive responses to change.
Positive reactions, as indicated then, can be managed with a four-step process. But perhaps the single most difficult leadership challenge is to productively lead people who constantly, even vehemently, fight change. Here are some tips for leading people through the negative cycle of change.
Stage 1: Denial "This is a stupid idea. It will never work. We don't need to do this." We hear this far too often. When faced with employees who are in denial of the change, the first thing you should do is ask them simply, "What hurts?"
Change is a personal issue, not an intellectual issue. Everyone knows that at some time or another they will need to change, and that their job will need to change. Change therefore is more of a heart (personal) issue than a head (intellectual) issue. Do not waste too much energy on trying to convince people on the reasons for the change.
It's also important to understand that people don't fear change. They fear the losses associated with the change, such as power, prestige, familiarity, information, their friends, or, at worst, the job itself! Therefore, the first thing you should do when an employee is living in denial is to ask, "What really bothers you about this change?" You now are getting into the personal side of change. The messy part, sure, but the part that must be addressed.
After listening carefully, reconfirm the change. State that the change will occur, that we are not turning back, and that we must move forward together. It reinforces to the employee that denying the change will occur will not stop it.
Stage 2: Resistance Now that employees know the change will occur, they will most likely try to find ways to resist implementing it. At this stage, let the employees vent (privately with you, of course). This will allow them to release their frustrations while intellectually and emotionally lessening their resistance.
Next, encourage any attempts to implement the change. It could be as simple as saying, "Tom, why don't you just go home tonight and think about this change, then let's talk tomorrow." Inspire any positive movement, however small.
Stage 3: Acceptance The first thing you must do in this stage is catch them doing it right! Look for the good in their efforts, however tiny.
Second, tolerate mistakes. Initially, they may intentionally fail just so they can say, "See, I told you this would not work." Don't fall for it. Thank them for even trying to do it, and ask them to try it again–this time with better results.
Stage 4: Commitment Apply the same three leadership behaviors in the negative cycle as you do in the positive: Celebrate the successes of the employees, recognize their growth, and prepare them for the next change. Encourage them to see the benefits of the change they initially resisted–and to try to be open for the inevitable new changes down the road. After all, it's easier to manage people through the positive cycle than the negative cycle.
The ultimate goal is to gain your employees' commitment to the change. Whether they respond to a change negatively or positively, it's vital to guide them until they understand the reasons for the change and are able–and willing–to move forward as a group.