Change in uncertain times

I think I’ve always been comfortable with change. I don’t view it as something to fear, but something to embrace. It took me a while to realise that not everybody thinks like I do.

Throughout my working life, I’ve often found myself at the coal-face of the interaction between people and organisations and I find it fascinating. Working in change management means that I often see the very worst of people – but also the very best. That intersection where people and organisations collide can be fraught with conflict. Supporting people to navigate the sometimes rocky terrain is often where HR practitioners spend most of their time and energy. It is a slippery path to tread – caught between the needs of the employees and the demands of management. More often than not, management wins. No wonder HR is often seen as something that is ‘done to’ people rather than ‘done for’.

In recent years I have found that, rather than being an exception, organisational change is the order of the day.  This has resulted in my work focusing more and more on the people side of change management – supporting individuals, teams and organisations to navigate their way through the upheaval that comes with any process of change.  Often, this involves helping people to learn how to cope with change and uncertainty and to become more resilient in the face of change.  Not surprisingly, there is a growing trend in organisations to teach people about resilience.

It has been said that we are currently living in a time of some of the most dramatic and enormous change in history. Gary Hamel, in his book The Future of Management, writes:

“Over the coming decades, the adaptability of every society, organization, and individual will be tested as never before. Luckily, perturbations create opportunities as well as challenges. But the balance of promise and peril for any particular organization depends on its capacity for adaptation. Hence the most critical question for every 21st-century company is this: Are we changing as fast as the world around us?” 

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said ‘the only thing that is constant is change’.  As humans that is certainly true. Anyone with children will know how eagerly they embrace the ongoing changes to their bodies, from learning to walk and talk, losing their baby teeth, growing taller – sometimes seemingly overnight – and wanting to ‘grow up’. As adults we seem to become less eager to embrace the changes that time instils on us – the greying (or losing) of hair, dimming eyesight, reduced physical abilities. I guess that’s because these are all indicators of ageing and decline.  Yet our bodies are physically changing all the time. I’ve experienced myself the drastic changes that happen when having treatment for cancer (more about that later)… and the body’s amazing capacity for recovery.

In spite of the ‘change is the only constant’ mantra, many people still view change as something to be feared.  As with any life transition, people need time to understand and accept any changes that occur in their lives.  In many cases, people find changes in a workplace hard to cope with as they feel they don’t have any control over what is happening. Being unable to have a say in the process can leave people with a sense of powerlessness and this is why open, two-way communication is so important. But, as with other transitions in life, people will eventually reach the point of acceptance. Some may need help to reach that stage and this is where leaders have a key role to play in supporting their staff through the change process. There are some good resources online that explain this much better than I can. If you are interested, take a look at John Fisher’s explanation of the process of transition which has been likened to the stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  These can both be sourced at www.businessballs.com.

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In my experience, most people deal with change better if they have the support of their manager and their team and understand why the change is necessary. Enabling people to become involved in the change process can help, as does transparent communication from management about the need to change. There will always be naysayers, but even they can become your strongest ally if treated respectfully. I’ve witnessed some of the most vocal opponents of a change to working practices becoming avid supporters and champions once they’ve recognised the benefits.  The important thing to remember is that not everyone deals with change in the same way.  Peoples’ past experiences will heavily influence how they cope with new situations and not everyone has the same level of resilience. As leaders, we need to find a delicate balance between the need to change and the risk of the change process being poorly implemented. At the end of the day, the factors for success revolve around communication, engagement and helping people to navigate through the uncertainties.

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