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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Human Side of Change

A new payroll system, merging two sales organizations, centralizing training and development, entering a new market, outsourcing data entry, introducing highly computerized production machines – just a few of the numerous examples of changes taking place in organizations.

There is so much to say about change, change management, and change failure. The most important thing to be highlighted I believe is the human side of change: How people perceive change, how they respond to change, how and why they work with (or against) change.

In any situation including in times of change, your assumptions and your thinking patterns influence what you see and how you see it, that is: how you interpret what you see. Rarely do change makers and change consultants really inquire how people perceive the present situation, how they see the future, and what they think of the upcoming changes. And if they do, they are not adept at providing the right support through the transitions that are part of the change process.

We all know that change is inevitable and a lot of the change that we deal with is for the better. Even then, change is generally disruptive and intrusive. Change disturbs the balance, the known, the familiar. Change threatens past success formulas and discredits past success. Or, if success was already a thing of the distant past, it threatens feelings of security and control.  In addition to general response patterns to change, there are substantial individual differences in how people respond to change. You’ll see excitement, fear, protection, worry, resentment, skepticism, support and a combination of feelings.

As William Bridges in Managing Transitions (2003) highlights, it is usually not the change we have difficulty with, but the transition. Bridges explains that transition is psychological. It’s a 3-phase process where people gradually accept the details of the new situation and the changes that come with it:
Phase 1: People have to part with their old ways of doing things and often with their former identity. Letting go and dealing with loss are topics in this phase.

Phase 2: People have to go through a period where ‘the old’ is gone yet ‘the new’ is not completely operational yet – the neutral zone. This zone requires, sometimes drastic, practical and especially psychological adjustments.

Phase 3: People have to close, let go of the transition period, and make a new beginning. They develop a new identity and discover meaning in the new situation. Or not, and then they are best off to move on.

As much as every change involves transitions, every transition starts with an end and ends with a new beginning. All types of change succeed or fail to the extent that the people involved really start doing things differently, which requires thinking differently. People have to part with ways of doing things that worked before and that provided meaning, results and success. They have to start and try out new and unknown ways of thinking and working. Successfully letting go of the old and starting something new is a central theme in dealing with transitions.

William Bridges provides numerous tips for the different stages. Some examples are:

-       Identify, understand and acknowledge who will lose what.
-       Sell the problem, not the solution.
-       Talk about the transition and let people know their feelings are human and okay.
-       Ask yourself what behaviors are being rewarded now that will change or need to change.
-       When marking the ending of the old, it is crucial not to ridicule the past. It disqualifies all that people have done before.
-       Therefore, position the past as a positive legacy that paved the way for the new.

-      Let people take something with them from the old to the new situation, just like we do with children when they move to a different house or country, in which case we call it ‘transition objects’.

As you know very well, it’s the human side of change that makes or breaks any change initiative. To champion and implement changes effectively I suggest you focus on this human aspect of change. Two books I find very useful are Managing Transitions by William Bridges and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

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