Adjusting to Change at Work

You’ve probably heard the old saying about the inevitability of d–th and taxes. In the workplace, there is at least one more inevitable factor to consider. Some form of change will impact you at work at some point. There are some pretty obvious reasons for this to be the case today. We are becoming a truly global economy with the competitive pressures that brings. With pressure from more competition, every business is faced with doing more with less, innovating, streamlining, and generally becoming more efficient.

In addition, consumers are better educated and more demanding than ever before. People check web-sites and read research, particularly for high dollar items. So competition for whatever your business deals in is more challenging than ever before. No wonder there is ongoing change in virtually every work place today.

How do people react to change? Would it surprise you to know that it’s usually not positively at first? Most people like “the way we’ve always done it,” even when that way is actually problematic and inefficient. Some people may even be aware of the inefficiencies, but aren’t motivated to change because change would mean more work for them, something new to learn, or even elimination of their own roles. In some cases, people actually react to large-scale changes with the same kinds of stages that accompany a d–th! Consider for a moment that an announcement has been made that the company you work for is replacing the very popular head of your division. The range of reactions could be something like this:

  • I can’t believe they are doing this! What can they be thinking? It must be a mistake.
  • I’m going to write that board of directors a letter and give them a piece of my mind! How dare they do this to us! This site has been the backbone of their success!
  • Well, maybe if we do really, really well next quarter they won’t replace him.
  • I guess it’s inevitable. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone. I’ve never worked for anyone else. I don’t know what to do.
  • You know, this could be a good thing. I’ll get to try some new things. I’ve heard the new boss is really interested in new ideas and developing his people. It might just work out fine.

How could sensible people react so differently to the same event? Not only will different people react in all these different ways, the same person can bounce around between all of the above attitudes and feelings. No wonder change is disruptive!

When you consider how disruptive change (even good change) can be, it makes sense to meet change head on in an attempt to mitigate the damage the upheaval may cause. Sometimes, leaders believe that they should keep the details to themselves. They reason that talking about the coming changes will distract people and even cause unrest. Nothing could be further from the truth. What actually is true is that people will make up the information you don’t give them. This doesn’t mean that they will consciously plot to create gossip. It just means that there will be many, many water-cooler conversations speculating on what might be going on.

Leaders should take control of the communication around the change. They should communicate often, frankly, and evenhandedly about the reason for the change and the impacts expected. How often is right? At first, people are nervous and even anxious about the announcement of change, so the communication should be often, even daily. Once the initial furor has died down, weekly updates may be fine, and then even bi-monthly. Just don’t stop communicating!

Many business changes involve confidential information. Even so, the leaders should communicate what they can, when they can. They should also explain if they are bound by confidentiality constraints, and that they won’t be able to communicate some things right away. The idea is to build trust, not suspicion, in the workforce. People do accept that some information can’t be shared. What they don’t readily accept is silence. They also won’t accept half-answers or soft-pedaling of unpalatable parts of the change. If some jobs will be lost, say so. If some groups of people are targeted for outsourcing of their jobs, say so. In any event, be thoroughly prepared to answer the “What will happen to me?” questions from each group of employees.

Pay some attention to the way you communicate about change. Some people really like the personal touch, and group meetings with leaders are the way they prefer to be kept informed. Others prefer email. Still others like a weekly update posting. Many of the same questions will occur to more than one person. Consider developing a Questions and Answers communication of some kind. It’s important to offer different methods of communication around change so that you will meet the needs of the majority of the impacted population.

What about retaining talent during significant workplace change? Many large businesses have a sort of template identifying the kinds of considerations to address during a change. Much like a disaster plan, they have identified key people, key customers, and key suppliers and developed strategies for assuring them, or even created incentive programs for them to stay through the change. If the change is really a closing of the business, the business still needs to operate until the doors are closed. So it only makes sense to respectfully support employees who are losing their jobs. Your state may have re-training programs for displaced workers. There may be other industries or companies in your area that need workers with comparable skills. Most state departments of labor have excellent services to help with wholesale job change. If your company is looking at losing a significant part of the workforce by the time the change is done, you have a far better chance of retaining them as long as you can if they see that the company is doing all it can to assist them in moving on with their careers.

The days when people started and ended their careers at one company are pretty much in the past. Even the identity of the companies themselves may not be long-term in this environment. Mergers and buy-outs are the norm today. The only thing you can really be sure of is that change in the workplace will continue to happen. So it makes sense for you to continually update and refresh your skills so you are prepared for whatever change is right around the corner. Because you can be sure there is one more coming!



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