Feature Article: How and when people love changeIt is a common experience to be listening to a conference speech and hear the phrase ‘people hate change’, often accompanied by nodding of heads and murmuring of agreement. This claim has always struck me as being rather odd. Most human beings are restless individuals, who do not like repetitive tasks or being stuck in the same place, and who enjoy sampling different environments on holiday. We adapt readily to new types of communications technology – and by no means only younger people. With a bit of amateur anthropology, you could easily form the opposite conclusion: that people love change. I actually think this would be equally misleading, however. The truer picture is that people display a mixture of adaptation to and wariness of a changing environment, depending on personality and on context.

Where the phrase ‘people hate change’ comes from is unquestionably the many organisational change programmes that go wrong, and meet resistance. Sometimes they go wrong because of resistance; sometimes they meet resistance because they are wrong; sometimes it’s a mixture. One observation I would make, based on experience of many different change programmes, is that the difference between the best and the worst initiatives is considerable, in terms of people adapting to the new environment and helping it work. A related observation is that the style of leadership is the key factor that makes the difference.

Leaders who involve their staff in a genuine dialogue about the present and future challenges are more likely to succeed for two principal reasons. The obvious one is that they are more likely to explain the rationale for a new strategy or way of working, and engage and equip their workforces to make it work. The other is less obvious: a leadership team never has a monopoly on wisdom, and a genuine dialogue opens up new ways to make change more effective. It may be a new, junior member of staff who spots a new business opening, for example by developing apps for mobile phones. No leader can control the change that they want: the most that they can hope for is to create deep conversations on the subject of the direction that they judge the organisation needs to go.

There can be few sectors that haven’t had to make radical changes in recent years. Internet retailing, other forms of online business transactions, and mobile technology have completely altered the revenue flows and business models of a range of industries, from publishing to telephony to the music industry. Political upheavals and rapid development of emerging economies represent other forces that are transforming certain markets.

Successful organizations, and leaders, see change as a daily, continual challenge, not a discrete ‘change programme’ that has to be applied to reluctant people. Being able to stand in the midst of uncertainty and change, and take multiple perspectives and change things, taking people with you, is the leadership challenge. For many leaders, this is a complete change in their way of working: away from plotting strategy in a central office, changing the structure and issuing communiqués, towards a culture of constant adaptation to outside events and deep conversations internally. This may require a radical change in personal style, assisted by advanced training and coaching.  The role of communications department is very important: they need very skilled individuals, not just those who push a message out, but those who can facilitate conversations, elicit ideas from the workforce, and engage.

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Obviously, it is not possible to talk to everyone, other than in the smallest organizations, but a leader who needs to make change effective does need to engage seriously with staff, so that they feel they have a valid input into the change. Sometimes, I have seen change work really well, because people who have led the change have involved people.

This is challenging enough where the change is largely about new opportunities. But what about the many cases where change involves cutbacks, including redundancies? Even here, there is a choice between handling it sensitively, in consultation, and handling it poorly. Key to the challenge is for leaders to be very straight with people, and communicate face-face, treating them with respect. People may not like the news, but they are much more likely to accept it if you have been honest and have informed them fully. In the past there have been examples of people sacked by email, and you do wonder how such a decision could come to pass, and how managers could have been surprised by the inevitable outrage and press coverage.

But it can be handled well. For example, one of my coaching clients was a manager with a major retailer that had to go through an almost complete restructuring. The market they were serving was going through huge changes as a result of the rise of internet purchasing and the decline in shop visits. Large-scale redundancies were absolutely inevitable, but the company got many things right: they explained the changes fully, and everyone made redundant had the most extensive outplacement help. We helped the manager gain a new job, and he ended up in a really good place. He actually feels quite positive about the company that he left. When hundreds of people are leaving your organization, it does much for the employer brand if they are saying good things – or at least not saying so many bad things.

Another major shift in recent years is towards sustainability: a better deal for suppliers from developing countries, and more care for environmental protection. A misconception if you go down this route, however, is to think it is all about a nicer way of business without tough choices. Sustainability may mean ending a contract with a certain supplier, which can mean redundancies. It involves some very hard decisions. That’s where communication is even more important.

One company, after 50 years of flying people all over the place to meetings, decided to just have video-conferences: a decision that is going to have big implications. The obvious benefits to business and the environment are lower business costs, lower carbon emissions, and a better work-life balance. But there may be difficulties for certain key business relationships, deprived of the richness of face-face meetings; and there may be a negative impact on employee engagement, if not handled well.

No change initiative is all good, nor all bad; but change is inevitable. The key to better change management is the same as the key to all management: honest dialogue and wise decisions, communicated fully.

By Neela Bettridge, executive coach and co-founder of Article 13