A Change of Heart

First appeared in ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Australia)

Last month I talked about how to get staff to cope with change in a company. Getting them to rationally accept it is a good start but it is only half the battle.

We all go through various stages in times of change: denial, defence, discarding, adaptation, internalisation. Some of the changes we go through take the blink of an eye – others take years or maybe we never get to the end of the cycle.

A lot of people get stuck between defence and discarding when they cannot get the old system to work properly but will not give the new system a chance either. This seems to be a popular stage for IT implementation.

Defence mode Getting people through the defence and denial stages is difficult. Many of the people you need to change may well have invested a great deal of time and energy in the old system and see you as the devil coming along to destroy it.

Suddenly all the problems with the old system seem to have disappeared. People are finally accepting and using the old system really well. You will even notice an increase in efficiency and self-esteem.

This, of course, is further ammunition for the ’why do we need to change?’ factions. The old system may be working better but it is because people are now putting more effort into it. Left to their own devices people would stay here forever if they could.

There are many stories of people in defence and denial mode, my favourite was from a colleague who was a tax inspector in Wales – he used to inspect betting shops and ensure they had paid the correct amount of tax. One day in 1976 he was working the Swansea valley visiting a small village called Abercwmtoch – a few houses, three pubs, a church and a betting office.

In the betting office he looks through the tickets and sees all sort of strange things: 2 shilling each way bets, 6d wins, 2/6 yankee. This was 1976 – five years after decimalisation, but seemingly it had not quite reached Abercwmtoch yet. ’Ah that new fangled decimalisation,’ you can imagine them saying. ’It’ll never catch on.’ I wonder if they have changed now?

At the denial and defence stage there is a lot of anger and blame – people are vulnerable. Eventually once it is accepted they have no options and the new system is in place. Then it gets worse.

“It’s different.”

“It doesn’t do what we want.”

“You can’t even run that report we used to run.”

“I told you it was rubbish.”

People need more training, to be listened to and encouraged to try things out and make mistakes. This stage is often referred to as ’the pits’ – it cannot get any lower.

Eventually, often painfully slowly, people start getting used to it and things start working – easier, faster and you start hearing:

“I wish we’d had this last year.”

“You can even run that report we used to run.”

“I told you it was a good idea.”

“Can we have it in red?”

The key is communicating with people. Tell them consistently what is happening. Tell them if there is nothing happening. No communication from the centre equals communication on the grapevine. That is how rumours start.

Starting fires

The next stage involves lighting one thousand fires. This is to do with letting go and empowerment.

This is a brave step and takes a mature manager to really make it happen. They have to trust their staff. It is still the manager’s fault if things go wrong – it is delegation not abdication – and they have to let the staff take the credit when things go well.

Before this starts however, you, as the manager have to set the limits and let the people operate within those limits. They need to know two things – the aim (measurable targets in terms of output, cost, time) and the parameters (what are they allowed or not allowed to do). Then off they go. You will be surprised at how much ingenuity and collective wisdom your people have.

The final aspect is support. This is the support you need to give your staff – clear, total and transparent. It is a matter of trust and acceptance. You know there will be mistakes along the line. How do you deal with those mistakes – do you learn from them or do you punish people with them. You know the answer to that one.

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