In working with organizations over the years, we've observed a leadership pattern that sabotages change. It occurs when senior leaders, who have been thinking, exploring, and debating about a particular change for a while, finally announce plans for a new initiative. Forgetting that others in the organization haven’t been a part of the discussions and are not as familiar with all of the reasons for the change, leaders are surprised by the amount of resistance the new change generates.
In our book Leading At A Higher Level, coauthored by the founding associates and consulting partners of our company, we cite a U.S. Department of Education project conducted by Gene Hall and his colleagues at the University of Texas that identifies six predictable and sequential concerns people have when they are asked to change. By taking the time to address these concerns, leaders can improve the odds of success for their next change initiative.
Are you considering a serious change effort in your organization? Address these concerns—in order—so you can get everyone on board and moving in the right direction.
Beat communication breakdown
When change is first announced, people will have information concerns. Often, leaders will want to explain why the organization is moving in a certain direction and why the change is a good idea. This is a mistake. People don't want to be told the change is good until they understand it. Instead, leaders should share information as plainly and as completely as possible. In the absence of clear, factual communication, people tend to create their own information about the change, and rumors become facts.
Leaders should prepare to answer questions such as: What is the change? Why is it needed? What's wrong with the way things are now? How much and how fast does the organization need to change?
Once information concerns are satisfied, people will want to know how the change will affect them personally. The following questions, even though not always expressed openly, are common: What's in it for me to change? Will I win or lose? Will I look good? How will I find the time to implement this change? Will I have to learn new skills? Can I do it?
People with personal concerns want to know how the change will play out for them. They wonder if they have the skills and resources to implement the change. It’s important to remember that as the organization changes people may think their existing personal and organizational commitments are being threatened. It’s normal for people to focus on what they are going to lose before they consider what they might gain.
These personal concerns have to be surfaced and addressed. Otherwise, as Werner Erhard has often said, “What you resist, persists.” If you don't permit people to deal with their feelings about what's happening, those feelings stay around. Have you ever said to yourself, “I'm glad I got that off my chest?” If so, you know the relief that comes from sharing your concerns openly. The good news is that when people share them openly, their concerns often dissipate.
Plan your action
If leaders address the first two concerns effectively, people will be ready to hear information on the details involved in implementing the change. At this stage they will be interested to hear how the thinking behind the change has been tested. They will also want to know where to go for technical assistance and solutions to problems that might arise.
Leaders should be prepared to answer questions such as: What do I do first, second, third? How do I manage all the details? What happens if it doesn't work as planned? Where do I go for help? How long will this take? Is what we are experiencing typical? How will the organizational structure and systems change?
Sell the change
After implementation questions are answered, people tend to raise impact concerns. For example: Is the effort worth it? Is the change making a difference? Are we making progress? Are things getting better?
People with impact concerns are interested in the change’s relevance and payoff. The focus is on evaluation. The good news is that if leaders have done a good job up to this point, this is the stage where people will sell themselves on the benefits of the change based on the relative merits of the results to be achieved. Be prepared to share early wins and proof that the change is making a positive difference. If the change does not positively impact results—or people don't know how to measure success—it will be more difficult to keep the change initiative moving forward.
With some evidence that the change is moving the organization in the right direction, momentum starts to build. Leaders can look forward to questions and ideas focused on coordination and cooperation with others. A solid nucleus of people in the company will want to get everyone on board because they are convinced the change is making a difference.
At this stage, leaders can look forward to questions such as: Who else should be involved? How can we work with others to get them involved in what we are doing? How do we spread the word?
Refine for success
Once a change effort is well on its way toward complete adoption, leaders can expect to hear others begin asking about how the change can be refined. For example: How can we improve on our original idea? How do we make the change even better?
Refinement questions are a good sign and show that the people in the organization are focused on continuous improvement. During the course of any organizational change, a number of learnings usually occur. Take advantage of new opportunities for organizational improvement that often come to the surface at this stage.
Give your next change initiative its best chance
Take time with your next change initiative. Do it right and you can drastically increase your chances of success. But rush through the early stages and, like so many others, you might find yourself derailed as many of these concerns surface later in the project, killing momentum when it is needed most.
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating here: People who help to plan the battle rarely battle the plan. While dealing with people's concerns about change may seem like a lot of hand-holding, it’s important for leaders to remember that they too had to process information and personal concerns before they were ready to discuss impact and implementation.
If leaders can diagnose people’s stages of concern about a change and respond with the right information at the right time, they can dramatically improve everyone’s trust and participation. This will allow people to refocus their energy on what needs to change and what they can do to help make the change successful.
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