By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. Change is never easy – especially not if suggested by someone else, or if it’s enforced through circumstances beyond your control. And change in the workplace is a challenge to itself. Employers may introduce changes to working conditions, structures and business models as a fait accompli. Employees often wish for certain change to happen, but do not feel they can voice this without jeopoardising their job. Or they resist a change that is actually good for all, including the business.
Or maybe you don’t think any change is needed at your work. It’s all fine the way it is. Is it, really? Is that yiur own reality, or everyone’s? Have you felt the true pulse of your workplace? Are you ready to admit that you may be wrong, and that there are alternative ways that would greatly benefit you, your colleagues/ employees and your business as a whole?
We are so attached to our own truths
Sure, we don’t always need to (drastically) change how we do things. But if we stay rigid and don’t change at all, then how can we grow? Have you ever seen an organism that doesn’t change? Yes, you have – once it’s dead.
Us humans are so very good at making ourselves believe in anything. And once we do, we tend to hold on to it and see everything through our own “truth” lenses. This explains how some of us consume brands religiously, or follow a cult predicting the end of the world (for the umpeth time) blindly. Self-justification of our own truths hinders us from undergoing true introspection that can lead to meaningful change.
As put so aptly by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially the wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling also called “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is created when you experience tension between what you know is right versus what you do or believe. For instance: as an employer, it is important to you to have a transparent, effective and collaborative hiring process, but then you wildly apply new people to vacancies you created almost on the whim. You know it’s wrong, but it’s so much easier to sidestep an approved process, and in your mind, get things rolling. You justify your behaviour to yourself by telling yourself that you have new clients coming down the pipeline and you need people to deal with them. Now. The issue with this is that while you let yourself off the hook, you create negative consequences for those in charge of managing the hiring process, or your employees as a whole – leaving them wondering why they never got to apply to an opening internally, or why this new dude at the coffee machine introduces himself as their new peer, yet he might as well be any odd plumber that was contracted to fix the bathrooms. And that in turn affects your productivity.
As an employee, you have sure come across this feeling similarly: your boss might have introduced new core hours to accommodate daylight savings (you have teams overseas that you collaborate with, for instance) and you feel very done in by this, as you never agreed to it, and it’s a unilateral change to your conditions, and you now need to change your own commuting or other schedules. You know it makes sense to adjust the times, but you feel that it doesn’t meet with your personal needs, or your current belief of what your personal needs are. You might even have a collective agreement in place regulating this kind of condition, so now you’re really going to fight.
How to manage change in spite (or because of) self-justification
In both scenarios, the question that arises is, How is the change introduced, and managed?
Was it part of a consultative process, were reasons and benefits explained, were consequences made clear, and was there a discussion if the change is necessary, and if there were alternative solutions?
Often, we don’t do any of the above, or only part of it. And if we do, it’s not a logical thought process based on analysis, but an emotional reaction to whether the change is perceived as good or bad by individuals or groups. Even if there is a consultative approach, or a thorough internal communication process, our first reaction is always: Oh no, that’s not going to work. No – it’s fine the way it is. Or even: Yes, sure, mistakes were made in the past, but it’s all fine now. Change demands of us to re-think what we believe: our mindset and our habits are part of what defines us, and to change them is scary for many of us, as it means we need to reinvent the image of ourselves and our beliefs. (What an opportunity though – if we grasp it).
“Mistakes were made”- do you hear the passive voice here? It’s just so much easier to shift the blame, to distract from ourselves, and not to have to own up to our own mistakes. Everyone does it at various degrees. Even (or especially) politicians. Henry Kissinger said in response to war crime charges in the 1970s, “Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served“.
It takes a lot to be able to step back, look at the big picture, listen to everyone’s needs and feedback, and make a decision on what could or should be changed in order to keep delivering better business, or attract more grants. At most companies that I have dealt with, it is custom to introduce change from the top down. However, someone in a boardroom often (and by nature) has very little knowledge of what really goes on on the floor, and may (unknowingly) do more damage than not when introducing change. If of course a business is built on values that motivate and encourage everyone to speak up, and to suggest innovative change for consideration, then change is much more willingly undergone by all; also, if there is a proven feedback process to top management containing information from exit interview or sentiments in team meetings. This kind of information is crucial to have as it helps to constantly introspect, adjust if necessary and keep an agile mind.
How fear and power play affect change
The workplace, in general, is built on the model of “employer” and “subordinate”- the one is in control, the other one must obey (at least for the duration of their relationship contract). But a workplace can decide – and instill through its culture – how much weight it wants to give this.
Those who believe in the values of sharing, an open door policy, innovation and in the capacity of anyone to be a leader, will face much less resistance to change. It may take longer to introduce it, sure – as is always the case with a consultative process. But it will last longer, too.
Those who don’t, will be challenged. Usually that happens via passive resistance, such as working slower. Or by employees taking “sick leave” for very short periods at a time. Some employees would very much like to speak up, and have a healthy argument, especially if the change affects them (and others that they are acting on behalf of). This however becomes a very difficult task if management consists of one gender only, or one ethnic group, or one age group – and the “brave” employee doesn’t fit the same demographic criteria. Most employees – in my experience – rather mumble and grumble, resist a bit, get angry with their spouses at home, or drive badly in traffic, than voice themselves. This in fear of losing their jobs, of being demoted, or side-lined.
Disruptors – those necessary but painful harlequins
Sometimes, it helps to get an external disruptor. Someone who can apply a neutral mind, analyse a situation, review the change that is needed (or not), how it could be introduced and what positive effects it will have. Such a person can bring together various interests, and listen to all parties involved. Of course, some change needs to be actioned with immediate effect, for instance in a case where there is no emergency communication plan in place for bad PR, and a customer is threatening to take the company to the cleaners. This plan will have to be drawn, resources allocated, and people’s job description expanded in order to accommodate for it.
An external disruptor (or a connected, holistic CEO) will be able to shake things up. Make things feel uncomfortable, before they are settled again. As if we don’t feel uncomfortable with a suggested change, or challenged to overcome our fear, we won’t really change. (If you’re interested in this proven theory, read up on Christensen and Jacobson, Reconcilable Differences and many others).
Disruptors are able to help us look behind our truths, our patterns, our habits and explore them against whether they serve a common purpose or are just self-serving and growth-inhibiting. The usual methodology is to start with a status quo (for instance, get a feeling for the current workplace culture, vision, people and their behaviours), and move on to suggesting possibly better scenarios – or creative alternative solutions. Really good disruptors do so by not just proposing new models, but by leading their audience to the suggestions they were going to make in any case: this through reality checks, pro/con lists, what if scenario plays etc.
For change to happen successfully, 4 things need to be in place:
- Willingness to change by everyone or at least various levels of decision-makers, if you perceive the volume of potential participants as too large (one spanner in the works, especially among employees, can add a lot of negative disruption);
- Trust among peers, and between peers and bosses;
- Monitoring tools to measure the impact the change has made;
- Awareness of consequences/ risk assessment.
The result of well managed change is that it keeps the ego in check, it helps us to own up, to act maturely and with integrity, and to get to know ourselves better. And this would surely create a better, new workplace with fewer rules and more values, and one that is much more agile in how it responds to external and internal changes.
Well managed change will result in a workplace that is grounded in the common belief that Change is Possible. And Most Possibly Always Good.
If you need help with change – contact me.
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