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Managing Change Effectively In the Workplace - Part 1

This Advisor column was originally published in October 2006.

Today’s workplaces are changing at lightning speed. Not only do we find it difficult to make changes in our lives, it is normal to be resistant to change. The process of making a change means an actual ending of something and a loss of something. Even when the change is positive, such as more efficient technology, it still means that we are giving up something that we are used to in exchange for an unknown. This can make even the most upbeat employee apprehensive.

Despite how you or your employees may feel about change, it is inevitable and something that needs to be expected and managed. If change is not managed properly it can trigger negativity in the workplace. The change process triggers the three most common underlying causes of negativity, a fear of a loss of competence, community, and control. In this two part series, we will discuss some strategies for helping make the change process go more smoothly. This article will focus on practical tips for making workplace changes go more smoothly. Our next article will focus on managing the emotional reaction to change.

Conquer the Change Monster

Although change always will be difficult for some employees, there are strategies employers can use to help make the change easier to accept. Consider using some of the following strategies when introducing a change to your employees.

  • Analyze whether the change will be of real benefit and/or value to the organization before actually deciding on and announcing a change. Frequent changes to operating standards or changes to organizational structure leave many employees feeling unsettled, particularly when little explanation is provided for the change. One of the trends we have seen recently in some organizations is the tendency to reorganize or change employees’ shifts because of conflicts in the workplace. Rather than solve the problem, the problem generally gets worse as the organization is now dealing not only with the unresolved conflict, but also the strong reactions associated with the change.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. The more information you can provide to employees about the change, the more comfortable they will be with the change. The communications should be designed to reduce any fears the employees might have, for instance, what steps have been taken to analyze the impact of the change on employees and to minimize any negative potential impacts.
  • Acknowledge that change is a common occurrence and can result in some people feeling uncomfortable. In workgroups where change is constant, take some time to help employees understand why that is so. For instance, in many public employment situations, priorities change frequently based on customer demands or changes requested by the Mayor or Council. Although the manager or supervisor usually knows the reason for the change, the employees’ responsible for implementing the changing priorities may not. We have found that workgroups have a much greater level of satisfaction when there is a discussion of how priorities are established, and why those priorities shift. The discussion helps employees feel more of a sense of ownership and control.
  • Announce the change well in advance of the actual change occurring. This helps employees have time to accept and adjust to the change. Similarly, create an action plan that describes the stages for implementing the change. Oftentimes it is easier for employees to accept the change when it comes in smaller pieces.
  • Be open to suggestions and alternatives for implementing the change, particularly when it comes to changes in the way a job will be performed. Suggestions do not always mean the employee is resisting the change. Rather, in general employees have a lot of knowledge and pride about the jobs they perform and may identify issues you may not have thought of that can then be incorporated into the change, or fixed where needed.
  • Ask individuals who are resisting the change process to make suggestions about how to respond to the circumstances/issues that brought about the need for change in the first place. This is referred to as using “flipside thinking”. Be sure this is done in the manner of “problem-solving” as opposed to arguing with the individual. Remember, resistance to change generally is focused on what the individual is losing, so flipside thinking is designed to get the individual to focus on the problem and the solution, instead of the loss.
  • Be careful about “bad mouthing” the old way, and instead acknowledge the value of the old way while reaffirming the value of the new way. Employees are personally invested in the manner in which they have performed their work, and when there are attacks on the manner in which the job is being performed, they may feel they are being personally criticized when in fact you are simply trying to make their job easier or more efficient. Reinforce the value of the new way be sharing information and facts about the reasons for the change.
  • Remember that negativity, when unchecked, is contagious, destructive, and habitual. Thus, although some negative reaction to the change is likely, limit the time employees spend being negative and direct that the behavior stop. If it continues, provide feedback to the individual and/or the team about how negative behavior impacts the workplace.
  • Incorporate into your workplace expectations and workplace standards the need for employees to be able to accept and manage change. If you are in a workplace that experiences frequent changes, include questions in your interviewing and reference process that are designed to identify the candidate’s comfort level in dealing with change.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Janice Corbin and Janet May