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Dealing with Organizational Change

Change is unavoidable. Businesses are no exception.

The many factors that can affect any business – from weather to technology, from supply-and-demand to macroeconomics – ensure that nothing stays the same for long.

Employees might welcome some of those changes and shrug off others. But some organizational changes, such as restructuring, can have a dramatic effect on the workplace, necessitating new strategies and realignment of people and resources. Staff may resist or rebel against those changes. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the organization’s leaders to guide the company or division, and its employees, through large-scale changes. Poor leadership during organizational change can mean that potentially beneficial changes end up harming the company or division.

Jeanie Daniel Duck, formerly a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group and author of “The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change,” has identified five phases of a change initiative, and the emotions each phase typically elicits. They are:

  • Stagnation: Signs of trouble emerge. Some people in the organization begin to push for change. Others go into denial.
  • Preparation: Leaders announce an impending change. Reactions range from fear to relief to excitement.
  • Implementation: Leaders announce new assignments or mandate new processes. People may experience fear, uncertainty, confusion, resentment, worries about inadequacy or, possibly, exhilaration.
  • Determination: While people adjust to working with new bosses, rules or processes, they make mistakes that can slow down the change process. It’s a treacherous stage for managing change.
  • Fruition: Ideally, all the hard work starts showing tangible results, including increases in sales and efficiency, lower costs and promising new products. Employees feel confident and energized, but their satisfaction might stand in the way of future change.

The leader or manager needs to be especially attentive to employees during periods of dramatic organizational changes. He or she needs to take time to observe and listen to employees, and then take steps to deal with their anxiety. Leaders should demonstrate sincere concern, fix elements of the change process that aren’t working (something that can often be learned about through talking to employees), remain positive and enthusiastic about the changes and, perhaps most importantly, adequately train and prepare staff members so they’ll have the knowledge and skills, and comfort level, for their new roles.

Leaders can assuage employees’ anxiety by being open about what the changes mean to them (“We’ll reduce staff gradually through attrition, but no one will be laid off”) and by explaining the reasoning behind the changes. Employees may resent a change that seems pointless, but embrace it once they see it’s good for them and the organization.

Most of all, experts say, leaders need to be visible, involved and connected during periods of change. They need to recognize and address the emotions swirling through the workplace, and acknowledge the employees’ uneasiness.

Change is inevitable, and it’s inevitably stressful. Managing that stress is essential to the organization’s well-being, but leaders can avoid a lot of stress by laying the groundwork for the changes.

A lot of that has to do with communication. Leaders and mangers need to talk with people at every level of the organization to build a convincing case for making the changes, find leaders in the organization to help orchestrate the changes, give people a chance to express their concerns, and identify a few short-term projects to demonstrate that the change benefits the company and employees.

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