From the Top Down: How to Successfully Manage Change in Your Company

Change management sounds like an expensive business proposition. It conjures images of large organizations with billion-dollar budgets, and not something SMBs could possibly manage. However, when you really look at the basis and practices of change management, you can see how any company — no matter its size — can benefit from its implementation.

Here’s why your company should consider a change management process to overcome any challenges or industry changes ahead.

Navigating Change is an Essential Part of Leadership

If you manage employees, then you need a process for change. Change starts at the top, writes leadership and organizational design consultant Carsten Tams. How leadership actually implements change and the excitement and support shown by top management will dictate how a company reacts to change.

If a CEO introduces a new tool or plan and then ignores it, their direct reports will do so as well. This trickles down through the management levels until entry level employees are apathetic or even unaware of the change. However, when management embraces the change and follows its progress closely, then the lower hierarchy steps up.

Business writer Satabdi Mukherjee agrees. She says many organizations expect middle management to intuitively know how to implement changes. These middle leaders aren’t given tools or support to train teams on the new processes. As a result, these efforts flounder. Change is ignored or employees become frustrated and increasingly hostile over time.

It’s like assembling furniture without instructions or even a picture of what the finished object looks like.

Addressing the “how” of change is important, but so is addressing the “why.” Morgan Galbraith, senior manager at United Minds, a Weber Shandwick consultancy, points to an employee engagement survey that found one-third of employees don’t understand why changes are happening in their companies. This leads to confusion, push back and a lack of ownership from employees.

“Executives and those responsible for leading change cannot assume that employees understand the reasoning behind them,” she writes. “You must spend time explaining the changes and why they are important.”

Effective leadership means understanding the reasons behind any resistance and taking steps to solve the problems your employees see. “More often than not, managers assume that change will be resisted, and therefore change management is all about overcoming resistance,” explains “Pacing for Growth” author and organizational psychologist Dr. Alison Eyring. “But this assumption does not tally with my [experience]. The primary need is not overcoming resistance but enabling and supporting people to adapt.”

You don’t use change management to force ideas and policies on your team, but rather to guide them through the new ways.


Change Has Ripple Effects Through Your Company

Change is a highly emotional and sensitive part of human life. This means that ham-handed changes can adversely impact your company culture, affecting how employees react to future direction.

“If changes are occurring in your organization – strategic changes, tactical changes, leadership changes, technology changes – then those changes are going to have impacts and effects on your people, processes and performance,” agrees Scott Span, CEO of Tolero Solutions, an organization improvement and strategy firm. “I view change management methodologies as just one of many tools in a toolkit used to help achieve positive organizational improvements.”

To better understand why change throws employees through a loop, consider the day-to-day steps of your team members. University of Southern California professor Wendy Wood has studied how humans are driven by habit, and found that 43 percent of our daily actions are based on habit and often automatic.

Enacting change within an organization doesn’t just mean introducing a new tool or way of doing things. It means digging deep into existing processes to see how they will change — and which habits will be disrupted — as a result.  

“Changing the way people think is an impossible task,” writes business consultant Dan Markovitz. “Rather, leaders should try to change how people act in the organization by defining the behaviors that they want, providing training on those behaviors, and then reinforcing those behaviors with appropriate incentives and punishments.”

The actions of your employees are the result of their thoughts and beliefs within a company, which means they will be more willing to change if they are invested in the culture.


Your Organization is Constantly Changing

The fact of the matter is that your organization will always be changing, no matter how many people you have on your team or what industry you are in.

To highlight this, Brie Rangel, VP of services at inbound marketing agency Impact, used her company as a case study in change management. Impact tripled in size in just over a year. This required teams to develop new processes and infrastructure as the company grew. Rangel is the first to admit that not all of the changes came easily. Even successful companies with eager teams can struggle to implement change.

Every company and team reacts to change differently to change, with different levels of resistance. This has led some companies to develop their own change management strategy that works for them.

James Davidson, partner at digital transformation solutions provider and consultancy 7Summits, says his company’s process starts with the preparation and definition phases of change and goes through the development phases until the new program is launched. In his case, preparing for change and defining what will be changed and why is just as important as the actual launch process. Without the pre-planning the launch won’t succeed.

Change Occurs Faster Than You Think

Not only is change a constant in business, it also comes at different speeds — often when you least want or expect it.

Tamara Rosin at the digital adoption platform WalkMe reports that 86 percent of change leaders expect the number of change initiatives in their organizations to increase over the next two years. Change is prolific and it is fast. But by having a tested and deliberate approach to change in place, your team can work quickly to review and implement change without presenting it in a rushed or careless manner. Think of your change management process as a fire evacuation plan you can turn to in an emergency.

“Most leadership research illustrates that as we go up the executive ladder, we need to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty and sudden change,” writes Kevin Cashman, author and CEO of executive development at organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry.

When the pressure is on to make decisions, you need to work through problems and changes quickly and effectively to help your company survive and thrive.


Change is a Highly Emotional Process

Even if employee pushback comes from a lack of know-how and resources, rather than a fear of something new, change is still incredibly emotional. Management can address potential pushback by make sure decisions are being made fairly.

Wendy Hirsch, change implementation consultant, strongly encourages leaders to consider fairness when implementing change — especially if that change is unpopular. She cites the “fair process effect,” which shows that people are more willing to accept unfavorable decisions when they feel that the decision is fair.

“Procedures or processes are said to be ‘fair’ when they are: consistent, bias-free, accurate, correctable, ethical, and open to stakeholder input,” she explains. When companies prove they have thoroughly researched their options and came to the best possible decision, it’s easier to win over skeptics.

Carol Fitzgerald Tyler, global senior practice director for organizational change management at Infor, also believes leaders need empathy during the change process. She uses new technology as an example. Maybe your staff has veteran employees who have used the same technology for years. Maybe you hired someone because of their knowledge of one system but are switching to another. Maybe you asked your team to change twice already.

Understanding what you are asking your team to do can help you come up with effective solutions and present them delicately. “There’s the empathy part of the strategy, but then there’s the compartmentalization of what needs to be done next,” she says. “It’s the ability to lift out of empathy and go into strategy thinking.”

Empathy doesn’t mean bending to every employee’s desire, but it does mean addressing their needs during change.   

That said, approaching problems with empathy is not easy. Augusto Giacoman and Maureen Trantham, organizational issues specialists at PwC, say an empathetic approach is often ignored or rejected by leaders who want to take a purely analytic approach to change. From a leadership perspective, empathy isn’t as important as fairness and logical decision-making; however, Giacoman and Trantham explain that it is possible to have both.

“In cases of highly analytical cultures, change efforts should appeal to emotions through logic and reasoning,” they write. “Start with the facts and figures — these important elements of traditional change efforts are even more necessary with highly analytical cultures. Use data to explain why the change is important and why it has to happen now.”

Certainly one of the best ways to encourage buy-in and ownership is to open up the floor to hear ideas and listen to objections before making a decision. “Objections need to be addressed before you can expect buy-in from your team members,” Kandace Miller, director of marketing at candidate engagement platform ConveyIQ, explains. “If you want to transform your business and ultimately become more effective, make sure you take all ideas into consideration.”

While this is not always possible, your team is more likely to own an idea if they had input in the change process. Plus, there may be better ideas out there that someone on your staff can come up with.

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence can use change management processes to guide their team members into whatever the future holds.

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