The Human Aspects of Change

Why does change fail to deliver?

There are many reasons but one might be that in the middle of a sea of project management disciplines, good as they are, we lose track of some simple human needs.

Firstly, most people face change with a degree of trepidation. Many leaders have a high tolerance of ambiguity – that’s what helped get them to a senior position. The problem is that this trait isn’t spread evenly across the general workforce. It’s skewed at the upper end. Leaders need to recognise that during times of turbulence and uncertainty, people grasp at the hope of something solid and where a new reality is simply not clear, they are often tempted to make one up.

Secondly, dealing with change successfully always involves finding meaning in what’s happening and whilst making sense of what’s going on is an individual thing, a shared sense of meaningless is all too common. So, beating off the competition, achieving growth targets and maximising shareholder value may resonate around the boardroom table but don’t necessarily mean much elsewhere.

Thirdly, the enemy of change is rarely outright hostility. The real danger lies in passivity and learned helplessness. Leaders often overlook this. If it’s true that people feel less frightened when they have some control, it makes sense that a change programme involves as many people as possible and gives them the opportunity of being meaningfully involved. The more people are involved from the bottom up, the greater the chance of radical engagement rather than semi-compliant fence-sitting. Too many change programmes are the domain of the chosen few.

Fourthly, people are by and large social beings with collective allegiances that cut across organisational boundaries. Day to day reality isn’t just what’s encapsulated in a new organisation chart; no matter how neat it looks on paper! If leaders work with the grain of social identities they will discover that they can mobilise the resources they have much more effectively. Change works just as well bottom up as top-down and ideally comes at the problem from both angles.

Lastly, change will not stick unless action is taken to stop people slipping back. A little celebration and explicit recognition of the heroic acts of others is always called for as is the public dismantling of things that propped up the old regime.

Next time – What’s the connection between The Arab Spring and M&A?

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