Understanding that change management is essential for executive success

Understanding change management
Understanding change management

Metathesiophobia is the fear of change. While most of us don't suffer from full-blown Metathesiophobia, all of us, to varying degrees, resist change. Even when a change is something we would categorise as good, (for example, marriage or retirement) it can cause us stress. And on the Holmes & Rahe stress scale, which rates life events that contribute to illness, business adjustment scores higher than death of a close friend.

With change now acknowledged as having the potential to impact significantly on an individual's well-being and performance, there is an increasing demand for change-agent executives to drive transformational change: basically, people who can manage their staff's tendency to default to better-the-devil-you-know. And if you're running a small business, change management is a skill you need to develop.

But what does change management Involve, and what are the skills required to successfully engineer change?

According to the Harvard Business Review, a change-agent executive is continuously looking for improvement: for organisational upgrades; to strengthen processes and systems; to improve commercial relationships; and to increase market share. But more importantly, when a business finds itself on the wrong course, or becalmed, an effective executive must be a bold captain and bring about sweeping – sometimes unpopular – changes to correct that course.

However, these types of changes can result in personal changes to the way people work, which can be unsettling, even upsetting, and it is vital not to mismanage this as it could lead to morale being undermined.

Developed from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five-stages-of-grief model, the Change Curve shows how employee performance changes as they pass through three stages of change: these are shock, depression and acceptance.

Phase 1: Shock

This initial reaction can cause a temporary dip in productivity. The main reason for Shock is a lack of information; it breeds a fear of the new. Key to mitigating Shock is clear communication. It's important to explain fully what the changes will be and why they are being made, paying particular attention to the benefits the changes are intended to bring. Make the vision for the new course the business is taking inspiring and one that the team will seek to support and drive forwards.

Start with a programme to test the initiative. The aim is to identify and clarify assumptions and to refine the vision and the mission. This will allow you to make appropriate adjustments to the process.

Phase 2: Anger/Depression

This stage sees frustrated employees look for a scapegoat: someone, or something, to focus their anger on. Scepticism, suspicion, isolation and apathy are common. Small issues or problems that come about because of newly implemented changes can be focused upon, often to the detriment of greater goals.

Mitigating these complex feelings and frustrations is also achieved through communication. It's vital that a business leader continues to talk up the reasons for the changes. It's also important to ensure members of the team know they're not alone in experiencing a mix of emotions. Appropriately empower your staff by making them stakeholders in the project and encourage feedback at every stage.

A phased approach is also advisable; plan small, well-defined projects that will bring the ultimate change closer.

Phase 3: Acceptance

When employees accept that the changes are inevitable and are in fact for the best, they will embrace the new opportunities. Their energy and productivity will not only return, they will reach higher levels. As the changes become fully integrated into the business's day-to-day processes, staff will become more optimistic and the new course the company is on will become the new reality.

Great businesses know that markets, and the companies in them, evolve continually, and sometimes with a disruptive step change. When everyone knows why changing is an imperative, then sustainable profits can abound and costly mistakes will disappear.

About William Buist

William Buist is a Business Strategist, Speaker, and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club - an annual programme of strategic activities for small, exclusive groups of business owners.