Workplace Changes Ahead? Keep the Conversation Flowing

talk through a workplace changePeople resist change. The familiar is more comfortable for most of us.

I have a printer at my house that’s ancient. To make it work, you have to tap it on the side, then go through a series of mysterious steps to get it to actually crank out a document. But I’m used to it. I don’t love it. But I know how it works. I’m comfortable with its idiosyncrasies.

In the business world, people sometimes cling to broken, poorly functioning systems. They’re resistant to change because the unknown and untested can be frightening.

We’re hardwired to resist change.

change and the brainAs a manager, it may seem that some employees are more open to change than others …. But, according to forbes.com, brain analysis shows that “when it comes to change, our brains all react pretty much the same way. We try to avoid it.” Routine activities are handled by a portion of our brain (the basal ganglia) that allows us to use less energy on activities we do frequently, i.e., we’re on autopilot. “Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the amygdala (the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our flight or fight response).”

Past experiences also affect our receptiveness.

To further complicate things, each person’s experiences with past “changes” will affect his or her receptiveness. New procedures or a restructuring can bring cynicism and a lack of excitement for someone with a history of failed programs. They have evidence that these new things are likely to fail.

Rational, capable businesspeople “look into the crystal ball of change and see inevitable tragedy,” writes Joseph Grenny for Psychology Today.

But it’s that shared rational quality that make it possible for really good managers to help their people embrace change.workplace change announcement

But simply reasoning with someone is not the answer when trying to get him or her to accept change. Here are several keys:

1. Clear and open communication: Successfully navigating change occurs when we speak openly about anticipated problems. Grenny refers to these as crucial conversations. He suggests that when employees are able to discuss concerns, barriers and ideas, they are better able to change their conclusions—and accept the change. Without this dialogue, people draw their own conclusions, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies, i.e., a person might conclude that the approach is flawed and silently withdraw their support. As they do this, efforts do stall and the approach does become flawed … confirming their assumptions that it is all a big waste of time.

When all the ideas and concerns surface, the unique experiences of everyone allow for the best decisions … and the process helps build commitment and unity.

This discussion should:

  • Communicate the vision—the why and what we’re trying to accomplish
  • Be simple and easily digestible
  • Not sugarcoat the challenges
  • Happen often so it becomes familiar (and moves into that part of the brain)
  • Show that the boss and upper management are committed to the change

2. Consequences for employees (or departments) who violate the new policies, procedures or processes: People must be held accountable, suggests Grenny. Without accountability, peers who do go along with the change face conflict with deadbeat colleagues. The change is also not being fairly evaluated if only a few people are on board.

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“A change effort is less likely to fail based on the technical merits of the project than on whether or not opinion leaders are capable of dealing with the inevitable resistance,” writes Grenny. Anticipate resistance. Address it directly by talking through the changes and the differences of opinion on a regular basis leading up to and through the change. Once new procedures are set, deal directly with workers who don’t follow them.

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