Change is one of the only certainties on today’s fast moving business highway. But mismanage it, and you could be speeding towards a multi-lane pileup. Matt Henkes looks at how HR can mitigate the risks.
One of the fundamental truths of modern business is that the flat-footed will flounder. It is only those firms that stay alert to new opportunities, challenges and threats, and respond accordingly, which will stay on top.
This means that for any organisation with aspirations of success, change is inevitable. But unfortunately, change is also very hard. Any period of transition can be an unsettling time for a business and its employees, whether it’s the implementation of a new IT system, a drive into a new market or even a change to a new building.
Research published last month by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) backs this up, suggesting that 65 per cent of individuals have witnessed major change in the past 12 months. However, when poorly managed, the impact of this is largely negative, with 71 per cent saying morale suffered, 64 per cent questioning job security and 60 per cent feeling less motivated.
Source: Gareth English, senior consultant at business psychologists OPP
There are many different types of change, all of which impact on the way that people perceive their jobs. Many respondents said that it had reduced their job security while nine out of ten said that they were finding it so tough that they weren’t even able to relax away from the office. But why is this? Surely it can’t be that hard.
Rachel Pryor, managing director at Arbinger International UK, believes that self-deception is a key obstacle. By this she means that people are naturally reluctant to admit to themselves that they are the cause of a problem, or even that a problem has anything to do with them, and are more likely to look at ways to explain a difficulty as someone else’s fault. Efforts are directed less at achieving results, and more at proving why a plan is flawed and how it’s not your fault.
“The neat thing is that only one person or team needs to see that they’re adding to the problem,” she says. “They need to acknowledge that they’re putting fuel on the fire and they need to see exactly how they’re doing that. Once they identify that, they eliminate the problem of self-deception and become focused on results again.”
Something everyone seems to agree on is that effective communication is the oil that lubricates your change, where employees are the gears and the executive is the engine. Simon Jones, acting chief executive at Investors in People, says that change fails when this communication breaks down and executives fail to take their staff with them. Often a process is begun with the aim of keeping staff properly informed and engaged, he says, but these good intentions fall by the wayside in the midst of high pressure change.
“Yet this is precisely the time at which a focus on people is most important,” he adds. “People are central to an organisation’s infrastructure and they should be equipped both to cope with the immediate impact of change and to adapt to changing requirements to support longer term goals.”
Mike Petrook from the CMI takes this further. “The very essence of managing change is not saying to staff ‘this is happening to you’, it’s all about communicating the fact that something is going to happen to all of us, and that we need to get through it,” he says. “To manage change, you’ve got to think of all the eventualities. You’ve got to have answers to all the questions before they’re asked, so your staff can see it’s very well thought through and you’re not just haphazardly reacting to circumstance.”
Carol Wilson, managing director at Performance Coach Training, advocates a series of managed meetings with staff in groups of seven to ten. “Talking about an issue in a supportive environment is a great stress reliever,” she says. “People will need to be encouraged and validated more than ever during a period of change; leaders should show their appreciation, give positive feedback, take a ‘learning’ approach rather than a ‘blame’ one, particularly when people are trying new ways as they settle in to the change.
“Strive to give people as much choice and control as possible,” she adds. “This will improve their performance and their buy-in to making the change work.”
But is this really a job for HR? Keith Bedingham, chairman of Verax, the business performance and management diagnostic systems specialist, thinks it’s not. “Change management should be driven by the business needs, therefore, it’s primarily the responsibility of the executive,” he says. “Further, in many organisations HR is not particularly well equipped to own or help manage the process of change.”
He feels that HR has a transactional relationship within most organisations, meaning that it generally doesn’t have the right skills or mindset to manage change. “For HR to carry out change management effectively, it needs to have a more facilitative and involved long-term role,” he says. “There is a role in HR for helping in the process, but fundamentally change management should be owned by the executive.”
Iain Davidson, director at business change specialists Quortex, says that, while the largest influencers during times of change are indeed the leaders, HR’s role is in challenging their communications and actions to ensure that there is congruence between what leaders say and what they are do. “Without this, then credibility and trust will be eroded, good people will leave and the business will revert to cynicism, resistance and become internally focussed,” he says.
One role that HR can definitely make its own is in the measurement of the effect of change on employees. Kate Pritchard, employment research manager at research firm ORC, says that in times of change, it is vital to track employee engagement. Employee research is key to understanding the opinions of employees. Measuring the attitudes of staff to communications and changes that are taking place ensures that the impact of change is closely monitored, and serves as an upward communication stream.
“Ideally, employers should measure employees’ level of engagement before the changes take effect and then regularly throughout the time of change,” says Pritchard. “This allows any issues to be addressed in a timely manner, and may also shape the change programme.”
So, it seems, as a facilitator of communication, HR’s role in change management is fundamental; ensuring that executive messages are aligned with executive behaviours, while at the same time funnelling upwards communication to inform these behaviours. Without oil, an engine will soon splutter and die.