Managing change is important. That’s obvious. Any company that has been through a major (or even minor) change initiative knows the perils of not managing the change process. The change management industry is booming and companies are scrambling to build “change management” into their leadership competency models. This is probably a reaction to the many failed change initiatives that organizations experience.
This increased focus on “Change Management” as a separate and unique discipline is both reactive and misguided. Organizations and leaders that struggle to manage change are probably struggling to manage the other aspects of their business that depend on people.
Organizations and leaders would be better suited focusing on improving their skill at people management. Once they get that right, managing change, or just about anything else will become much easier.
There are two myths that drive the notion that managing change is somehow different than managing other people-centric activities.
The first myth is that people dislike change. That’s simply not true. By nature humans want to grow, explore, and learn. We seek novelty. When was the last time someone said, “You know what I love about our weekly status meetings…we always go over the same stuff!” One in five car owners lease their car allowing them to get a new one every two to three years. To stay competitive, mobile phone companies have had to introduce new programs to speed up the interval at which you can trade-in your phone. Customers were getting frustrated having to use the same one for two years.
As humans we get bored pretty easily and that’s when engagement, morale, and other problems begin. We don’t dislike change. We dislike the stress that often comes with poorly managed change.
In his book, Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind, Joe Dispenza explains that during times of stress we tend to revert to the routine. However, this is based on physiology not preference. When we are stressed, blood flow to the brain moves from cognitive centers in the front to the “hindbrain” and “midbrain”. Those are the older parts of the brain that control our more basic functions – especially our physical functions. We switch from conscious processing to unconscious processing (or auto-pilot). In auto-pilot mode our brain thrives on the routine. These are the situations where it appears that people are resisting change as they are latching on to the status quo. However, what we perceive as resistance to the change is really just people reacting to stress and shutting down.
Yet times of change are not the only times that people face stress. People routinely encounter stress on the job. Based on the current state of employee engagement in most organizations, many of your people probably encounter more stress in their day-to-day work than they do during times of change.
So, where does stress come from? Our brain evolved during a period in which most threats were physical and required a physical response. Our bodies were optimized to act, not think.
Today, physical threats (loss of life or injury) have largely been replaced with cognitive or emotional equivalents:
- Loss of livelihood (the monetary version of loss of life)
- Loss of credibility (or looking stupid)
- Decreased self worth/impact
- Lack of belonging
- Lack of fairness (equity)
However, our brain hasn’t caught up. These new threats require a cognitive response but our brain still prepares us for a physical response. This response is what we experience as stress.
As it turns out, these threats occur both day-to-day and during times of change. They often result from uncertainty. When people don’t have information they start filling in the blanks themselves. In doing so, they often create or perceive threats which may or may not be real. They stop thinking and go into survival mode. This leads to the dysfunctional, unproductive behaviors that prevent people from performing well. This is what drives the illusion that people do not like change. People aren’t automatically opposed to change. They are opposed to threats. That is what must be managed.
This brings us to the second myth which is that change management is somehow different from other forms of people management. It’s not. Managing people effectively in any context is about reducing uncertainty and threats. Of course, you still need to get the enablers, tools, and reward/incentives right. However, no matter how well enabled, an individual who is feeling threatened isn’t going to perform well.
The first step to managing people effectively is to decrease the level of uncertainty they face. Uncertainty breeds stress and threats. Whether during times of change or daily operations, people must understand what is going on around them. The next step is to understand the real or perceived threats that people face and remove them (or reverse them and turn them into rewards).
Stop trying to manage change and instead focusing on managing people. And, by managing people, I mean start taking the time to understand where your people are lost, what information is missing or confusing, and what real or perceived threats they are facing. Then fix those issues.
Once you’ve mastered that, your change initiatives, projects, and day-to-day operations will all start to run more smoothly.