Change management is hard to get right — it often scores very low on staff satisfaction and engagement surveys. So how can you change the way you do change?
Often people think that change management is about communication. However, although communication is an imperative part of change management, it’s not the only part.
Here I’ll take a look at how people are affected by negative bias when it comes to change, and their progress through the Change Curve. And I’ll provide my tips on managing an easy change process.
Where do you begin?
Years ago, I worked for an organisation where we recognised that we didn’t do change very well, and we needed change management. And everyone just looked at each other blankly, and thought where do we even start?
I think that’s one of the reasons change seems difficult is that change feels a little bit intangible. Large organisations can hire in change managers to do that process for them. But for smaller organisations, it’s more difficult to understand the steps you need to take to manage change.
‘for smaller organisations, it’s more difficult to understand the steps you need to take to manage change’
One of the key issues we face with change management is negative bias. As humans, we all have a negative bias, which has been demonstrated through many different research studies. Psychologists tell us that, as human beings, we:
- pay more attention to negative events than positive ones
- learn more from negative outcomes and experiences
- make decisions based on negative information more than we make it on positive data.
And a presumed reason for this is that it’s evolutionary. We have been hardwired to pay attention to the bad stuff, because that’s what keeps us alive. Research shows that it starts when we’re as young as one year old, we’re hardwired to look for danger, and to look at things that are negative.
Within the workplace, it’s important to understand this around things like reward and recognition. We can fail to recognise the positives because we’re hardwired to notice the negatives.
And when it comes to change management, people tend to focus on what they’re losing with the change, rather than what they may gain. Negative news is given more weight, which can help gossip to fester and derail change if we aren’t aware of it, and doing something about it.
‘people tend to focus on what they’re losing with the change, rather than what they may gain’
Negative bias is not something that people are doing because they’re trying to be annoying, it is just that this is what we do as people. So once we understand negative bias exists, we can begin to ask:
- how do we become aware of it?
- how do we manage it?
- how do we overcome it?
The Change Curve
The Change Curve is a model that’s commonly used to describe the emotions we feel when we experience change. It’s based on the work of Elisabeth Kübler Ross who also created the well-known Five Stages of Grief. The Change Curve is a similar concept, applied to change management.
When things change, we focus on what we’re losing and there is an element of grief associated with that. Different people experience this in different ways, and the intensity of our individual reactions differs. For example, I might experience a change very intensely, it might completely derail my entire world, whereas someone else might say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s fine. I’ll just move on’.
It’s also important to understand that everyone goes through the Change Curve at their own pace. Some people will go through it very quickly, others will take time.
everyone goes through the Change Curve at their own pace
Change management is about making sure that we’re aware of, and helping people through, the Change Curve. There are many different versions, but let’s take a brief look at the main stages of the Change Curve.
People can feel quite overwhelmed by change, especially if it is unexpected. Their initial reaction is often just not accepting it. They will think:
- this can’t be happening
- maybe this will just go away
- If I deny it, maybe it won’t happen.
And we also have a tendency to focus on the past and we start to build up our defences, thinking:
- we’ve tried this before but it didn’t work
- if it’s not broken, don’t fix it
- we’ve always done it this way.
Sometimes while we’re going through the denial process, we can even see a temporary increase in performance, because people will suddenly think ‘oh, no, this process works fine, we don’t need to go to a new process’.
In the next stage, our performance starts to go down as we get into more of an emotional rollercoaster. People might be quite angry about the change. They may start to blame others, or they may start to blame themselves.
People get anxious about the change, they’ll start to wonder,
- am I going to lose my job?
- will I be exposed as incompetent?
- do I want to be a part of this change?
As you can imagine, if you have people thinking this way it’s very difficult to make change happen. However if you’ve got the right processes in place, you can move people back up the Change Curve towards acceptance, where their performance is increasing again.
Acceptance is a more optimistic stage of the curve. It’s where we start letting go of the past and focus more on the future. We’re willing to experiment a little bit more with the change.
We might start to say:
- what we were doing couldn’t have gone on forever
- I’m curious about whether this new change will work
- how does it work?
- okay, it’s not actually so bad.
We might have some mistakes happen, but we’re starting to experiment, and things are actually going okay, until we get to the final stage.
This is where we actually see new opportunities as a result of the change, which are better ways of working. We’re back to stability, we’ve got high performance again.
- everything’s really good
- this was a great process.
Helping people through change
So, considering both negative bias and the Change Curve, how do we get people through change as quickly as possible? It’s all about having a process.
The first part is preparation and careful planning. You need to be really clear about the change process that you’re going through.
So let’s say that we’re going to implement a new piece of software. We need to ask:
- why are we implementing it?
- what are we hoping to achieve?
- what does success look like?
- who’s going to be impacted by this change?
This can be done with a very quick and simple stakeholder analysis template, which you can download online. It can provide structure around who will be affected by the change and what you need to do about it.
Consultation with the people who are impacted is really important. In Australia, the Fair Work Act requires consultation to be done for any major workplace change, prior to the decision being implemented.
But even just in terms of trying to get people on board with the change, the more that we can involve people in decisions, the more motivated they will be to help the change happen.
Time and energy
There can be a tendency sometimes to rush into change like a bull at a gate. You might think this change is important, we’ve got to implement it. But that means that you’ve already gone through that Change Curve. Everyone else is potentially still at the start. You find yourself trying to push through a change and wondering why it’s not working.
It really does require time and energy to put the change process in place. You need to identify who is responsible and accountable for different components of this change, and make sure they know they are responsible and are accountable. And also that they have the time and the energy to support the change as well.
Proactively equip managers
If you have a middle management layer, then you need to make sure that they understand the change, the outcomes, their roles and that they’re on board.
You may have heard of the ‘frozen middle’. It happens when a change or new initiatives is handed down from the top to middle managers, who need to implement them. And very often those changes just slow down.
A lot of companies will blame the middle managers, saying ‘well, they haven’t implemented that change properly’. But actually, it usually comes down to poor communication from the top level, about how to manage the change, and how they will support their team members through it.
Training and Support
You may not need to do entire training courses, but no matter how simple the change, you need to make sure that people understand:
- what it is
- how they can receive support
- how to implement the new process
The process might be as simple as moving offices, and while there’s no need for training for that, there might need to be, for example, some instructions about how to access the new office with a new keypad.
So whenever there is a change you need to consider whether there is anything in terms of training support that you need to provide.
Measure success and reward contributions
Remember that this can be quite an emotional roller coaster for many people. If you are successful with different components of the change, then you should reward people along the way.
This will increase their motivation to keep going and also their understanding that you’re on track. They’ll think, ‘this is exciting, we’re heading somewhere’. It can just help to lift everybody and keep them on board with the change.
You may be thinking this all sounds like a lot of work. So why am I bothering with change management? Because it makes change easier. And if we can make it easier, we can make it stick.
Quite often people will go through change processes and not long afterwards things just revert back to what they used to be. So although it may feel like quite an investment of time and energy, it is the way to make sure that the change will occur.
It also increases acceptance. The more that we can understand negative bias and help people through the Change Curve, the more accepting they’ll be of the change. It means the change will happen faster and people will be more productive, which means that you’re also reducing the costs associated with the change.