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The More Things Change... Managing the Human Element of Change

by Barbara M. Spiegelman

Believe it or not, when it comes to managing change, the technology is the easy part. I see you there, cringing at your desk. Perhaps you're moving to a new operating system. Upgrading all of your PCs. Migrating to a client-server environment. Installing a new ILS. Initiating a Web site. To your left are stacks of vendor literature announcing new products, new gateways and new interfaces. To your right are stacks of internal documents announcing the new systems your organization wants you to put in place in the next six weeks.

And this, you say, is the easy part?

You got it. Because we can deal with the technology. Maybe not all in one day, maybe not with a one-interface-fits-all answer, but we can do it. Somewhere out there someone is developing a product or a fix to handle or even eliminate the problems presented by the technology we're implementing today.

The hard part is dealing with the human element, not the technological one. If you doubt the truth of this, think how often you have said to yourself, "This job would be easy if it weren't for the people."

Resistance is the main reaction to change.
Consider it thumb sucking for grownups.

Rethinking and Balancing the Human Equation

Change saps an organization's energy in myriad ways. Every time we restructure our organization, reorganize our group, re-engineer a (seemingly) innocuous process, or move to a new location, we set off a complex chain of human responses. Most of these reactions to change are fairly predictable. The problem is, we are conditioned to spend a great deal of time worrying about and preparing to change to new technology, and a relatively small amount of time—if any—to preparing for the human cost of change.

If you told your management that you were going to migrate to a new integrated database system, they would not question the time you took in identifying technical specifications and interviewing vendors. You would not feel a moment's hesitation in taking the time to visit a colleague who has the system in place, or to run a pilot to ensure that the technology will work with your architecture. But if you planned the same amount of time to prepare for the human side of change, your manager might question the pace of the project, and you would feel as if you should have done it all faster and with less effort.

We need to rethink this equation. We need to prioritize our time and energy to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable resistance to the changes we're making. We must develop strategies that will help us manage that resistance to ensure a successful outcome of the change.

Our Commitment to the Status Quo

Resistance is the main reaction to change. Consider it thumb sucking for grown ups.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Left to our own devices, some of us would initiate change, but most of us would prefer to retain the status quo. Not because we're lazy or stubborn, but because we're human. The status quo is a known entity, and we like it that way. Most of us don't deal well with the unknown. The unknown is scary, it makes us feel out of control, insecure, and generally as if we would like to go to bed, pull the covers up over our head, and stick our thumb in our mouth.

And while you may not be seeing many employees literally walking around with their thumbs in their mouths, you are probably seeing them do so figuratively. In their effort to hang on to the status quo, and retain some feeling of control, employees will resist change in a variety of ways. What does this behavior look like, and what should you do to manage it?

Overt vs. Covert Resistance

Resistance can be overt or covert. Overt resistance is out there for everyone to see and hear. It may come in the form of questioning the need for the change, challenging the data you put forward to support the change, protesting assignment to the project, or, if it is coming from your management, outright refusal to fund the project. Encourage overt resistance—at least it's visible and you can deal with it.

Covert resistance, on the other hand, will probably be camouflaged by so many layers of masking behavior that you wonder if you're losing your mind. You outline the project. You involve the staff in the design. You communicate the objective often. You plan like crazy. You make your expectations clear. You provide all of the resources needed to optimize the change. But as you work harder and harder, nothing changes...

What's going on? The resistance has gone underground—and it's your job to excavate. Don't know where to dig? Start by looking for lip service or analysis paralysis.

Left to our own devices,
some of us would initiate change,
but most of us would prefer
to retain the status quo.

Lip Service/Analysis Paralysis

On the surface, employees who exhibit lip service are with you all the way. They appear to buy into and support the change. But there's always a reason why the change doesn't happen.

Procrastination and featherbedding are classic examples. In the first, the employee assures you that the project is the next item on their to-do list. And the next time you check, although they've accomplished 10 tasks in between, it is still the next item on their to-do list. In featherbedding, you may actually see the project start, but the work is accomplished at the slowest possible speed, so that a project that should have been completed in three months is still being worked on a year later. The assumption here is that you will eventually tire of pushing for the change, and it will all just go away. Welcome back, status quo!

Analysis paralysis is different. In fact, it's hard to tell whether this particular malady is resistance at all. It appears to be a genuine effort to ensure that the project/software/system is done exactly right. The person tasked with choosing the new ILS, for example, creates a detailed technical specification. They begin looking at systems. And they look. And they look. And they look some more. When questioned, they will respond with the completely accurate statement that "a new system has just come out." In the current information technology environment, this task will never be completed, because there will always be one more system to analyze. Identify a date for a decision—and enforce it.

It's Too Hard

In 1989 I was the deputy proposal manager on a project that was worth several hundred million dollars to Westinghouse. I was located in a trailer at a remote site, with responsibility for a team of employees I had never worked with before. My boss and teacher was an experienced proposal manager. Sometimes he would look at the work we had to do, and at the team that was working 14-hour days, examine the project deadline, and state calmly, "It's too hard." When we would get bogged down on the project, we would turn to one another and repeat our mantra: "It's too hard." Of course we kept on plugging. Some days I feel the same way about managing change. "It's too hard."

Remember that line as you walk the walk of a change agent. You will have good days and bad ones. At times the change will seem effortless, and at times impossible. There will be days when you want to give up and let the status quo reign. On days when you are tempted to give in to the forces of resistance, lock yourself in a room and call a friend, a mentor, your manager, or call me. You aren't alone out there. In an industry that is changing daily, we must all get very good at this, and we must do it together.

About the Author
Barbara Spiegelman is Manager, Technical Information and Communication at Westinghouse Energy Systems Business Unit.

If you take resistance into consideration, and plan your response to it, you will be addressing the human side of the change equation. You cannot overcome or eliminate resistance, but you can manage it. Here are some quick tips:

Accept the fact that resistance to change is inevitable. Do not try to design the change to eliminate resistance. It does not matter if your change is viewed as a positive or negative one. Every change is positive from one point of view and negative from another. Remember, it is not the actual change that people are resisting; they are resisting the disruption of the status quo.

  • Throw the word "logical" out of your vocabulary. Resistance is not logical. Do not try to talk anyone out of resistance behavior through logical arguments. Remember that if resistance were logical, no one would be overweight or smoke. As one who fights a constant battle between love of chocolate and an unforgiving scale, I can assure you that resistance isn't logical—it's visceral!
  • Involve employees as much as possible and as early as possible in either the decision to change or the design of the change. The more involved they are, the more control they feel. The more control they feel, the less resistance you will see.
  • Encourage overt resistance. Make it easy and safe for people to surface their concerns. Consider planning a weekly project meeting time to air concerns. Put a clipboard in a prominent place where concerns or questions can be posted. When resistance surfaces, accept it calmly and respond appropriately. Take care. If you are perceived as coming down on someone for voicing concerns, you will drive the resistance underground.
  • Plan your communications carefully. Communicate often and through a variety of media. Speak about your personal commitment to the change. Write about the change. Invite your management or other stakeholders in the organization to make a presentation to employees about their reasons for supporting the change. In all communications, emphasize the business case for the change.
  • Communicate honestly. When the change is not going well, say so. Remind employees that things weren't perfect before the change, and probably won't be perfect after it.
  • Maintain your position. Do not back away from the change—ride out the inevitable resistance and the problems. This is an indication to your employees that when you start down a path, you have the durability to see it through.