Coaching Employees Through Organizational Change

Without a doubt, business plans, spreadsheets, and process flowcharts are essential for the smooth functioning of a successful business. Many hours of number crunching, market analysis, and carefully crafted what-if scenarios can produce a nearly fail-safe plan of action. Unfortunately, a strong plan in writing means nothing without committed people to bring the ideas to life and nurture them along the way. Understanding, engaging, motivating, and rewarding your employees is already an important part of management when everything is business as usual. At no other time is employee engagement more critical than during times of organizational change. This month’s Best Practices column tapped Reg Carter, executive director of CITEC Business Solutions, Inc., to share his knowledge about the importance of managing people before, during, and after the inevitable process of change in the workplace.

When it comes to change, human instinct is naturally averse. Prehistoric humans learned to survive by seeking predictability and avoiding the risks that are inherent in change. It is no surprise that many people still resist doing things differently, often going to great lengths to keep the status quo. Reg Carter suggested that it is important to involve everyone in the organization as early as possible in the change process to ensure a successful transition. The reason for this is that change impacts every member of an organization, regardless of their role. “It is important to talk with your people,” he advised. “Lay out what you want to do and why you think it is needed. You have to listen in order to be sensitive to the impact that the change will have on each of them, and try to see it from their perspective.”

It may be helpful to think of organizational change from a sales perspective. Employees are like customers—you can’t force them to buy in. Even if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to. When you’re trying to sell something, you need to understand the concerns and needs of the buyer to be successful with the sale. Frequent and ongoing communication with employees is one of the best ways to figure out what motivates them. Once you can understand what motivates someone, you have a better chance to get them to become an advocate for the change among others in the organization.

Critical Mass

When managing employees through the change process, a key goal for managers is to gather a critical mass of people who embrace the new ideas so that others can see successes as the plans progress. People react to change in one of three ways, according to Carter. There are early adopters who seem excited and willing to move forward with changes right out of the gate. The second group are the fence-sitters, who prefer to reserve judgement about any changes until they have more evidence to back it up. Finally, there are the resisters, who prefer that things stay just as they are. Sometimes people don’t mind change, but they show up as resistant because they feel as though they are being changed. This is why involving everyone in the process from the beginning is so important.

Carter cautions that failure to find a critical mass of supporters for the change is a red flag that shouldn’t be ignored. “If you can’t get the majority of your employees on board, then that is telling you something. It is either not a good plan, or you have not communicated it properly,” he commented. “You might have the best idea in the world, but if you haven’t engaged your employees, the chance of success is decreased. On the other side, when you have an idea that is not as great but comes with the support and engagement of your employees, the business impact will likely be even greater than with a super idea you had that nobody was on board with when you went to implement it.”

Communication is Key

Without a doubt, companies that can launch a substantial change initiative from a solid existing communications strategy have a clear advantage. Now is a good time to reflect on your current practices and see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Inventory the strategies you currently use to share information across all levels of your organization and identify areas where additional support is needed before moving into the change process. People will be hungrier than usual for information during uncertain times. Be prepared to provide more details, more often, to more people in response to the information needs of your people. Even where there is no news to report, sharing that simple fact is better than sharing nothing at all.

Sharing information from the leadership to the staff is only one part of the equation. It is equally important to ask for input and feedback. Be accessible and actively seek opinions from others so that your actions clearly demonstrate that communication channels are open in both directions. “Change is messy,” cautioned Carter, “You can get through it as long as you are communicating with your people, identifying the issues the team did not anticipate, and taking steps to correct them.”

Strategies for Successful Change Management:

Share the “Why”: Undoubtedly you have solid business reasons why change is needed, and why it is needed now. If you want people to buy in, it is important to share those reasons freely.

Interview people: Sit down one-on-one with as many people as possible and listen to the ways they believe the changes will impact them. Personally ask them for their commitment to help make the organization better through the change process.

Identify influencers: It is generally easy to spot the informal leaders in any group of people. These are the people who are sought after for their advice, who others try to emulate, and who are well respected by their colleagues. Seek first to engage them and gather their support so that they can be advocates among others.

Overcommunicate: People are naturally hungry for information when they have a sense that things are changing. When there is an information vacuum, people tend to fill it as best they can, and this often leads to misinformation and rumors spiraling out of control. Transparency and routine, clear information sharing are the best ways to control this.

Expect the unexpected: When things don’t go as planned, own up to it and involve employees in figuring out what went wrong and what to do to correct it. Stay committed to the change, but remain flexible to adapt the plan when needed.

Build on successes: Look for both small and large wins during the process and celebrate these widely. This will give people in the organization some positivity and motivation to carry them through when challenges occur.

Positivity required: Management and leadership need to stand together and project a positive attitude about the organization throughout the change process. Any hint of negativity can easily derail the project.

The rapid pace of change in the modern business environment has made the general population somewhat prepared to expect change as part of life. The daily news offers example after example of companies closing stores, losing customers, or becoming irrelevant because they do not change fast enough. When leadership in an organization helps employees see the connection between rapid changes in their daily lives and the need for rapid changes in the workplace, they are more likely to understand why they need to bring adaptability to their own jobs. Employees who are not able to adapt to changing workplace demands will find themselves limited in the occupations they can hold for any period of time.

Regardless of whether organizational change is in the short-term plan for your business or not, it is a good idea to encourage a culture of growth and development that is responsive to change. Carter advised businesses to think of change as a constant continuum. “Because technology is moving so quickly, organizations have to be more agile than ever. Those groups who truly embrace and implement opportunities for change are going to be the most successful,” he added.

Carter offered several additional resources for managers interested in learning more about change management. In addition to the services offered by his group, CITEC Business Solutions, many books have been written on the topic. Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, is a classic motivational easy read suitable for wide distribution across an organization. Leading Change, by John Kotter, is another excellent resource summarizing lessons learned from more than 100 businesses facing change. “This is one of my personal favorites as it relates to change management,” Carter endorsed