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Why “Change Management” is the most overlooked driver for executive success

March 30, 2016

Uber has a new logo. And many people don’t like it. There are things we don’t mind changing – seasons, governments, underpants – but most of the time, most of us resist change.

For every innovation, from skinny jeans to a black Bond, there are plenty of us instinctively asking why? Why change? Why do the bus timetables have to change? Why do we need another damned software upgrade? Why can’t fat-free yogurt and smoothies still be good for us?

The questions may vary, but the subtext is constant: Why can’t things stay familiar, and safe?

Of course, it’s not always the few imposing changes on the many. Sometimes there’s a mass call for change; to find out how that feels, just ask any Premiership team manager, or the Republican Party grandees with heads in hands at every Trump success.

One of the interesting things about the UK’s upcoming EU referendum is that, despite what some campaigners may be saying, we’re not about to decide between change and no change; the choices may be IN or OUT, but either way, things change.

Change is inevitable. The trick is to make changes work for us. And that’s why a Harvard Business Review’s list of skills that are critical to business success includes change management. But what does that mean, and what are the skills required to successfully engineer change?

“Change Management” and why it is critical to leadership success

According to the Harvard Business Review, a change-agent executive continuously looks for improvement, which may take the form of organisational upgrades, or a strengthening of processes and systems, or a boost in commercial relationships, or a hike in market share.

Often companies will look outside their existing employee roster to find a candidate with the necessary skill set to lay the groundwork for the sought-after change and growth. This will sometimes involve bringing in bold, sweeping and perhaps unpopular changes.

Changes within a company can be absolutely necessary and genuinely for the best, but it’s important to understand that a very personal change to the way someone works can be upsetting.

If the implementation of changes are mismanaged, employee morale can be significantly undermined, so it’s critical that potential reactions are anticipated and planned for.

For more on this read; 7 Common reasons why employees resist change and how to encourage them to embrace new developments

Understanding the “Change Curve”: How will the workplace react?

Companies that need to change must take into account myriad factors. Whether the business is implementing a new competitive strategy, billing/accounting system, or pivoting away from a period of unsuccessful project management, the dynamics of organisational change are incredibly complex.

From day one, a clear plan must be in place, and it must take into account the inter-relatedness of organisational parts together with the organisation’s different personalities and workplace culture.

The Change Curve, which was developed from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s model for the five stages of grief, shows how worker performance shifts as they negotiate the three stages of change. These are shock, depression and acceptance.

Phase 1: Shock

Often the first reaction to change is shock. This happens because of a comfort with the status quo, and a fear of doing something wrong or looking foolish.

The key to mitigating shock is clear communication, which includes reiterating details of the changes and explaining their benefits. This will ease the adoption process.

Phase 2: Anger/Depression

Failing to communicate effectively when the changes are initially announced can prolong, and perhaps intensify the anger/depression that typifies this second stage. Feelings that are common at this stage include scepticism and suspicion, and frustrated workers may seek a scapegoat.

The focus for their anger could be a single executive or the organisation as a whole, or they may concentrate on small issues or problems that arise from the changes. Some may continue to do things the old way as a form of protest.

Mitigating these feelings and frustrations is also achieved through clear communication. The reasoning behind the changes should be talked up, and it is vital that staff know they’re not alone in experiencing a complex mix of emotions.

Encouraging feedback is an important step towards empowering employees to see themselves as stakeholders in the project. Where possible, a phased approach with small, well-defined projects bringing the ultimate goal closer often aids adjustment.

Phase 3: Acceptance

During the third and final stage of the Change Curve, workers move to accept the changes and they begin seeing new possibilities; the changes take on a positive light. Having accepted that the changes are inevitable and for the best, staff can embrace a new reality, and their energy and productivity will return.

Keep in mind that while most employees pass through these three phases, individual reactions may vary; some will find it easier to be like Bowie and turn to face the strange. Individuals who are naturally more accustomed to change or who feel better integrated into the change process will progress more quickly through these stages.

Knowing where an individual falls on the Change Curve is critical to the timing of change-related communications.

About the author

This article has been written by ByteStart’s regular business management contributor, William Buist. William is a Business Strategist, Speaker, and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club – an annual program that helps business owners to accelerate growth, harness opportunity and build their business. He is also author of two books: ‘At your fingertips’ and ‘The little book of mentoring’. Other articles William has written for ByteStart, include;

And for more insight on managing, motivating and rewarding staff, read these other ByteStart guides;