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Driving organizational change

By Elaine Varelas, 11/7/2005

We've all heard the pithy cliches about change: nobody likes change...change is the only constant...inertia is easier than change. But for human resources professionals, maybe Woodrow Wilson's quote sums it up best: "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

As HR executives, we know that for employees change can cause a mix of emotions, including anxiety, fear, and resistance. We also know that change is inevitable in an organization and in people. What is HR's role in driving organizational change? And what can HR professionals do to make the transition smoother for employees?

The biggest role for human resources occurs during the pre-announcement phase of any change. This is the phase that is most often overlooked. What happens before the announcement? What does it mean? How much will it cost? Why are we doing it? Who will be affected? What are the current and future implications? The answers to these questions will provide context for the change. This information can then be used to develop a roadmap for the implementation and communication phases of the project.

It is important to build adequate time into the planning process. Organizations often make the mistake of not allowing for enough time to carry out the new initiative. The rule for timing is: double it. If you think you're going to need six months for the project, count on a year.

One of the reasons the process takes twice as long as what most companies originally calculate is the people in charge of the initiative (i.e. the leadership) have usually spent a significant amount of time already discussing and dealing with the change. They've had time to let go of the old ways and digest the new. Employees need that same adjustment period so they don't feel like they're being force-fed the program. When management pushes down change on employees it can kill morale and cause a negative chain reaction.

Let's use running for office as an example. Candidates don't just show up at the polls on Election Day shouting, "Vote for me!" There is a strategic plan behind the campaign. Candidates develop a platform informing voters about where they stand on issues, and what is important to them. They attend house parties and campaign meetings and participate in debates months in advance. And most importantly, they talk to voters to get feedback.

HR managers should take a cue from campaign managers. They need to communicate their ideas, give time for them to sink in, and talk with employees about their concerns and opportunities.

When HR managers have an appropriate amount of time in the pre-announcement phase to work with employees, they can try to identify concerns, recognize areas of resistance, and put components of support in place to address them head-on.

One way to do this is to create a diverse, representative change committee. Invite employees from different constituencies to be a part of the team. Not only can leadership gain valuable insight from this committee, but members can take news of the change back to their colleagues and departments and start building internal support.

While a smaller scale change may not warrant a dedicated committee, it still needs attention from human resources. Almost all new initiatives are complex and can provoke anxiety in employees. Even something seemingly simple like switching coffee brands can wreak havoc in the workplace. If not planned and communicated properly, these straightforward initiatives can be met with apathy or resistance. In fact, small changes are often harder to deal with because leadership doesn't recognize that there may be a problem. But most people have a natural aversion to change, no matter how minor it is. If HR professionals are aware of this, they can plan a roadmap (either simple or complex depending on the situation) to guide employees through these tricky times. Just because the change isn't a merger or a lay-off doesn't mean it's insignificant.

One way to help employees accept new small or large-scale projects is to show what success will look like. This is a great way to rally the troops around the idea in advance, either through symbolism or something tangible. For example, when one local energy company merged with another, leadership held a huge bonfire to "burn" symbols of the old way of doing things. This gesture demonstrated to employees that neither company would hang on to the past, but were working together to build a new future. Displaying a model of a company's new building or a concept product is another tangible way to show what success will look like.

When it comes to change, leadership often spends a lot of time on the idea, but not on the process. HR's role in driving organizational change is to take hold of the process. For change to succeed, HR professionals need to provide a roadmap that works.

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