What does swapping shoes with a neighbor have to do with change management? Carol Howard, director of Black Birds Three, explains and her tips for those up to their neck in managing change.
Here’s a phrase I started to hear in organisations last year: “But it’s not a democracy around here”. It most regularly pops up in the context of creating change and communications strategies. And particularly when talk turns to giving employees a sense of control during disruptive change. Or when the discussion moves to two-way communication and the positive impact it can have.
My question is not about how true the statement may or may not be. Or even to debate if the language is damaging. But should we be more mindful when we manage change? Mindful of the language we use, the attitudes we hold, the ambiguity we ask employees to tolerate and the assumptions we leave unchallenged?
When presenting on change, I get people to kick off a shoe and swap it with a neighbour. Why? Because knowing something rationally is not as powerful as feeling it. And because successful change involves understanding different perspectives and experiences. Find it a bit icky to contemplate swapping your sparkly stiletto shoe for a well-travelled Doc Marten boot? Maybe it’s best to leave organisational change to someone else. Change is often more about empathy and challenging yourself, less about burning platforms.
So here are my top tips for anyone up to their neck (or knee-high boots!) in managing change.
Build your flexibility and adaptability. Know a control freak or petty bureaucrat? Change is not the best space for them to play. It’s about influence, not command-and-control. Even the best change methodology only gets you part-way to success. Be flexible, adaptable and creative with your change plan. Learn how to shift gears quickly and accept that “change management” is a misnomer.
Be prepared to test assumptions. True story. I worked with a manager who couldn’t understand why his large technical call centre team had gone from overworked but motivated one week, to slack and sullen the next. We did get to the bottom of it. People thought jobs were about to be cut. Why? No one told them the temps who turned up out of the blue were there to help reduce workloads. Ask the right questions and you’ll unearth the unspoken.
Mix courage with empathy. These are not words we use often at work. But they’re qualities that the best human resource and change managers exemplify. Why courage? Someday you’ll need to tell a project team/general manager/CEO to stop/delay/speed-up/reconfigure or rethink a company-wide initiative. Or risk alienating every customer and employee in the process if they don’t. Mix your business sense with the ability to understand why, how and when people fear change.
Leave stakeholder analysis behind. I mean the word, not the process. It’s difficult to empathise with “stakeholders” but easy to identify with “people and teams”. Watch out for language that dehumanises people and replace it. Easy!
Which brings us full circle to the phrase: “But it’s not a democracy around here”. These are words you’ll never need to use if you have the mettle to give your employees a voice, ask the hard questions and learn how to influence. Leave your ego at the door and invite empathy in. Be audacious. Keep a hold of your courage. Change happens from the inside out. And it starts with you.
Written by Carol Howard, director of Black Birds Three, which delivers employee communications to support human resource and organisational change initiatives.