October 14, 2009

Is your organization emotionally ready for change? Some tips for easier change management.

Every once in a while the economy whacks everyone on the side of the head to remind them to shape up, pushing companies into a state of shock. 2008 showed us a perfect example of a good whacking with a major collapse in the financial markets. A year on, the shock has worn off, and it’s time to shake off the dust and march forward. For many companies, this is the time to reevaluate the course of action, reposition the company, or reconfigure the organization.

For most people it’s so much easier to go back to the way things used to be. The thing about change is that it mostly strikes the emotional part of the system, and whoever charts the course, must expect and properly handle the emotional ups and downs of the organization throughout the transition.

Just over the past few weeks, I’ve either been involved with or have witnessed the firing of a CEO, birth of entire organizations, layoffs, and repositioning of companies (yeah, I’ve been kind of busy). Although I personally enjoy the prospects of change, years of dealing with various companies and organizational changes has taught me a lesson or two about dealing with the unsettling factors involved with major change within companies. I’ll share a few of them here.

Deal with the fear of change. Your other option is stagnation which is much more scary. The way you can help the organization overcome the fear of change is to provide as many facts and analyses as is possible. The more knowledge everyone has, the less emotionally reactive they become.

Don’t act out of panic. You’re almost sure to make the absolutely wrong decision. Enough said?

Take things one step at a time. Keep a strategic view, make your plans, then act accordingly. Huge mountains are conquered one step at a time.

Remove yourself from the situation. Pretend like you’re giving advice to someone else. I’m saying this from experience. Something happens when you’re removed from the situation – you become more rational and less reflexive in your decisions. If you have a hard time with this, change management consultants can help you through the transition. Hello!

Get your staff on board during the planning process. You need the affected division heads on board to make successful transitions happen. They need to understand why the change needs to occur, where the organization is headed, and how you will get there in order to transmit the ideas throughout their respective organization. The more time you spend with them before the change occurs, the easier the transition.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Engage the organization throughout the change process both by talking and listening. This is no time to hide behind your computer screen. Pay particular attention to the quiet ones. They’re the ones listening to everyone else and can provide a wealth of information about the general morale and other on-goings within the organization.

Expect problems. Know that things will go wrong. Your staff will get cold feet, the markets will change, your finances won’t go as planned. It’s OK. Your plan should have wiggle room, but also, don’t beat yourself (or anyone else) up if things go off course. Regroup and pull things back on course. You never know, you might even decide to change the intended course halfway based on the new data.

Not everyone will be unhappy. Whenever I’m presenting to a group about the need for change, I notice a few quietly nodding their heads. Some of your staff is already on board to make these changes happen. Use them to help you in the change process. They already share your vision, and can help you during the transition.

The ending is just as important as the beginning. Once you’ve gone through the change process, don’t let the organization fall back into the old patterns otherwise your efforts will go to waste. Everything will feel wiggly for a while. Make sure all the processes, new systems, and new positions are solidly in place before you relax and grab that martini to celebrate.

I remember during a massive layoff at one of my old employers, the division heads were trained to deal with all kinds of violent behavior, people crying, etc., then one of them passed out during the exit interview for someone he was laying off. No one had thought about the strain on the management staff during the change process. Yeah, fun times.

I’d love to hear about other emotional factors you’ve witnessed during major change at your organizations, and how they were dealt with.


  1. Nice job Kat- you covered all of the bases- I would like place emphasis on engagement of others to develop the plan, ingegrity of the message- it must be honest,congruent and logical. People are smart and can handle the truth better than a watered down version without facts.

    The communication plan is essential- think about who needs to know what and when and the sequencing of the communication (this would include 1 on 1 meetings and smaller groups before a general communication). Without a plan you can not control the message and rumors will create a message that has a life of its own.

    The people who you really need to retain, if it is a layoff, need to know that they are valued and you want them to remain on board. It has been my experience that the strongest talent will be the first to go as they have options- you need them for the future.

  2. Love your post! In particular "Not everybody will be unhappy." How far have we got that we assume that anybody will be unhappy in change management processes!

    I remembered a discussion on Linked a year or two ago on whether change management is about happiness or not. Most people said no; I said yes because only happy people make a good change process and a successful company. We tend to forget that...

  3. Kat,

    I so like your point about taking a step back and (trying) to look at things from an unattached perspective. Never easy to do of course as we're all so emotionally tied in to the change we're promoting we often forget other people are allowed to have other views too.


  4. Nice piece. Whether you are a Bill Bridges fan or not, there is an important aspect of acknowledging / naming the loss. There is always something we have to let go of in change be it influence, certainty, comfort, belonging, status etc. Gotta give - in order to get.

  5. Roberta Hill has the right idea - change is a regular part of everyone's life, whether it comes from within yourself - self-development - or it comes from external stimuli. We see changes in our children, our co-workers, our customers, and our own priorities all the time.

    It is hard to let go of the past, even a past that we know is less than ideal. When confronted with necessary change, we all have two choices - to embrace the change and greet it head-on or to cling to the past, grieve, and eventually to come to grips with the loss.

    I was part of three phenomenal teams that were all disbanded as business conditions changed. Yes, there was a great loss, but some of the people met the new challenges head-on, and some suffered greatly. I too was trained to watch for violent behavior, but I've never seen it directly. Instead, I dealt with anger, sadness, grief, and relief that the pain of the losses/RIFs had reached the logical end. Counseling really does help, but the most important thing to do is to get busy with something new - exercise, a new business idea, volunteer work, day care, anything.

    Sim (in your LI stream) recognizes that crisis also creates new opportunity for those who have been put down by the status quo. I cannot count the number of times that I have spent a few hours with the new boss and formulated a completely new charter for my team, one that brings new energy and a sense of purpose that we didn't have under the old regime. As an orgn consultant, you need to identify the smoldering embers of capable leaders who have been constrained by business circumstances and give them permission to soar.

  6. Hi Kat, it's your favorite new commenter (sp?) with yet another comment.

    I've been part of two of the largest corporate mergers (at the time) in two separate industries. Also was part of a small business unit that was sold off to private investors. And finally, was part of a business unit of a major multi-national company that underwent a revolving door of executives, each of whom wanted to put their own "stamp" on the organization.

    The common thread I saw through all of these was that management was extremely unprepared to deal with how to communicate the changes in a clear and honest way. Typically, we were provided with all of the happy, fluffy information that was designed to answer a few questions as positively and vaguely as possible, but skirt all of the hard questions that people had. And when pushed to answer the "tough" questions, management typically was ill-prepared to answer the questions in a diplomatic or professional manner. It usually came down to "this is inevitable, you'll have to deal with it and if you decide you don't want to be part of it, then you should consider your options"...which obviously meant be quiet, stop complaining /asking questions or go find another job. Very short sighted in my opinion and it served to lessen morale for most employees.

    During any significant change, employees are going to have tough questions. Difficult questions. And some of them are going to be very emotional. Not being able to address these questions at all or dismissing them with a wave of the hand and stating "maybe you should consider other options" is not a good way to get people to embrace change.

    Be as honest as possible, even if the truth is something that isn't easy to swallow. People would rather hear the truth than anything else during times of change.

    Be prepared to deal with negative reactions. Be prepared to diffuse them as quickly as possible. If needed, offer to set up a private meeting to discuss further with the questioner, especially if they are emotional. Don't let one or two angry, emotional people influence the entire audience of employees.

    Think through what questions might come up and be prepared to answer them. If you get thrown a real curveball, state that you can't answer the question, but will commit to following up in person with the person who asked the question.

    Finally, be compassionate. Some (a lot) of people fear change. They fear the unknown, they worry about the security of their job. Make sure to show some compassion so that employees feel like someone cares about them as a person and not just as employee #474015.

    Happy, secure employees are productive employees. Unhappy, worried and stress-out employees are not productive. They spend more time sitting around waiting to see what happens than they do actually doing their jobs.