How to Manage Change in the Workplace
There’s no way to predict how employees will react to organizational changes. Whether it be downsizing, moving locations, a change of leadership, or some other transition, managing change in the workplace is an ongoing—and tricky—task.
A 2005 WorkTrends study of 10,000 employees representing 4,000 organizations found those from firms that had been engaged in a merger or acquisition reported significantly less favorable results than those who worked at companies not involved in a transition.
Being prepared for how to handle employee reactions to workplace changes is key to a successful transition. To help you tap into your workforce’s emotions, we’ve compiled a few expert tips.
Alert Employees of the Changes
Studies have shown that people are more welcoming of change if they’re told about it at the beginning of the process. Be honest and direct when informing employees about the change; being open and transparent about how and why a change is taking place will lessen the distress employees are experiencing and put everyone on the same page, with the same vision. After communicating the message, be prepared—and willing—to listen to any and all feedback concerning the changes.
Once information about the change has been shared, be ready for employees’ reactions by familiarizing yourself with the emotional phases of change.
Know the Emotional Phases of Change
Using Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “The 5 Stages of Grief” as a model, the following are seven of the most common phases of loss employees may feel when faced with organizational change.
- Immobilization: Mental paralysis following initial news of a change. During this stage, information about the change doesn’t stick.
- What to do: Repeat key facts about the change as well as the underlying reasons for it. Interview employees about their feelings. As Peter Stark points out, it’s important to understand what employees are thinking in order to know what issues might need to eventually be addressed.
- Denial: Thoughts that include “They won’t do it,” “They don’t have the nerve,” or “They’re just trying to scare us.”
- What to do: Mr. Stark recommends breaking down the change into a series of steps to help employees understand what’s happening and why. The more they can understand, the more they’ll cooperate. If possible, delegate tasks to employees that will help make the transition period smooth. This will both ease your workload as a manager as well as give employees a sense of involvement and responsibility/control.
- Anger: Reality sinks in and negative emotions take over. Employees can become distracted and less committed to the organization. They’ll spend time venting and, perhaps, sabotaging the company by not sharing information, being less collaborative, and treating customers badly.
- What to do: Let them vent. Management should hold “vent meetings” and one-on-one meetings where employees can talk about their concerns, fears, and thoughts about the transition. Listen, acknowledge the anger, and offer stress management programs as an option for any anxious employees.
During a big change, employees will be hungry for information and answers. By getting employees’ opinions and reactions, you’ll show them you care and that you’re accessible to them. Keep them updated, clear up rumors, and as Peter Stark points out, it’s impossible to over-communicate.
- Negotiation: Prescribed roles are rejected and attempts to negotiate ensue.
- What to do: Remind them, gently, that the change is a positive thing and that their role can’t be negotiated as it is part of the plan toward future success. Speak to the people who make negative comments, and ask them to stop doing so. Reminding them that they’re important to the team and that their team needs their best work is often effective. Ask them what you can do to help them.
- Depression: Failed last-ditch negotiation efforts lead to a depressed state.
- What to do: Encourage employees to talk things through with colleagues, managers, HR, and stress counselors. Offer information about stress management programs again. Make an effort to keep morale high. Bring in lunch for the office, celebrate small victories, offer half-days, write a note of encouragement on paychecks, take them aside and tell them what a great job they are doing: showing your employees you appreciate them and their cooperation during the change goes a long way. Here are several other ways you can motivate your employees.
- Exploration: The realities of change sink in and thoughts about the future begin to take place.
- What do to: Continue to acknowledge how valuable employee cooperation is in making a smooth transition and keep emphasizing positive aspects about the change. Have training programs in place to begin the transition when employees are ready. In fact, training should be a top priority, because even though it will take time and money, it will help reduce how much productivity is lost through this change.
Christine Corelli recommends asking exactly these three questions when considering a training plan:
- What is the level of competence needed to support the changes in our company and help us make it through these challenging times?
- What training will be needed to bring the staff up to that level of competence?
- What training is needed on new products, procedures, and especially product support? (This is the area where you are likely to make the most profit in the environment.)
- Acceptance: Confidence and willingness to participate.
- What to do: Praise the steps being taken to embrace the change until the employee is confident enough to give the change a chance. Be sure to lead by example and keep a positive attitude. This will be a major factor in determining the attitudes of employees and the workplace atmosphere. Your attitude is the one thing that you can control and by being upbeat, positive, and enthusiastic, you’ll be able to foster motivation in others.
Being aware of and sensitive to your employees’ emotions is a key part to being a good leader. This is always true, but especially so during times of change. By communicating the message of the change directly and honestly, welcoming a dialogue with troubled employees, and embracing employees as they take the steps through the seven phases of change, you’ll be able to reengage and motivate your workface much sooner than if you do none of the above. Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be crippling.