The Covid crisis has resulted in a lot of change for businesses throughout New Zealand. On the downside, we have seen stories in this paper in recent weeks of local businesses needing to close, restructure or downsize. Local stores within national chains are shutting down, relocating premises or changing their operating model. On the upside, the physical distancing requirements of Levels 3 and 4 have accelerated the digital and flexi-working revolutions.
There is a common belief that people hate change. This is not true. People change all the time. Twenty years ago we booked our flights through a travel agent, did our sums on a calculator and wrote our emails on a computer. Now, we use smart phones for all that. There is intentional change, and there is imposed change. The proliferation of smart phones is an example of intentional change – we see a change that will benefit us, and we want a part of it. What people hate is imposed change, and this is the kind that often happens in business. When we are needing to make significant change within our business, it can be a very challenging time for leaders and staff. Leaders have the benefit of being closer to the decision-making process and are either the instigators of the change or know enough to understand the benefits of it. However, they often become frustrated when staff resist or do not fully embrace the change. From their point of view, staff are the ones having change thrust upon them and often feel their voices have not been heard.
There are several important things that leaders and staff can do to make the change process less painful for all so it is more likely to be successful. The key is to make the change less imposed, and more intentional.
1. A genuine consultation process is invaluable. Phony consultation builds resentment and breeds mistrust between all parties. When staff are asked to participate in authoring the change, they feel respected and valued, and this goodwill flows over into the implementation phase – they are more likely to persevere when things gets tough. Just as importantly, contributing to what the change will look like enables staff to include things that will directly benefit them, or that they will find motivating – they are making it more of an intentional change. Lastly, genuine consultation means that staff will understand the reasons that the change is necessary, and knowing the ‘why’ provides motivation for executing the ‘what.’
2. Make sure the change is resourced properly. This can be very difficult, as change is often made because resources – for example, time, money, energy – are tight. However, beware the false economies present in poorly resourced change. Skimping on the consultation process can result in staff who are resentful of, and not committed to, the change. Likewise, a rushed planning process will cause all sorts of problems down the track. Crucially, staff need to be resourced with the time to learn or adjust to the new way of operating, while still being able to deliver on their business as usual. We implement change within our businesses to make things better. A well-resourced change process will reward you with successful, sustainable change – performance, profitability and morale will be higher as a result. A poorly-resourced one will result in just as many, if not more problems than the ones you were trying to address in the first place.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Tied closely with resourcing, frequent and honest communication from the very start of the change process is hugely important. From the earliest you have a clear picture of what is happening, keep your staff in the loop. It’s OK to say “there are some things I don’t know at this point.” The danger is that if you wait until absolutely everything is certain, leaks or rumours will start; your people will feel left out and uninformed. Remember, nature abhors a vacuum – if you don’t provide information, people will make it up. When we do not know what’s going on, that age-old fear of the unknown surfaces, and all sorts of anxieties arise. Staff who are fearful and anxious can’t have an open mind towards change because their brains are in self-preservation mode. Throughout a change process, leaders need to communicate more frequently than usual. Even small updates that may seem unimportant to you still give the message that you respect and value your staff. Make it clear that there are no silly questions, and that if you don’t know the answer, you’ll do your best to find out. Then, ensure you follow that up. Being honest about what you do and don’t know, and also about how you are coping with the change, builds connections with your people and lessens the likelihood of a ‘them and us’ culture developing.
Change can be hard, but it can also be exciting, especially if we get to be a part of it. With every change there is a loss and a gain, and if leaders do change well – by consulting their staff; resourcing it properly; and communicating effectively – people will be able to focus more on what they are gaining. They will commit to making change work.