I fancied myself as a moderniser who would throw out all the fusty furniture, the habits of a life time and the “dinosaurs” – the old timers who dislike change. I was the one who embraced new technology, diversity, new management approaches, shaking things up, challenging tradition, the “way we have always done it”. I was deeply suspicious of the older generation who said things like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “we tried that before and it didn’t work”. In fact I found myself getting really frustrated at the scale and pace of change.
Years later I have much more understanding of the people who don’t like change!
A few years ago, Notting Hill Housing bought new offices in Kings Cross. I was involved in the decision and it made complete sense financially and operationally to move from Hammersmith. Yet for at least two weeks after we had moved in I had an acute sense of loss. Everything I liked in Hammersmith had been left behind – my gym, my friends in the gym, my local shops, my bus route, the people I was familiar with in the sandwich shop. I had to work out a new route, new timings, adapt to a new gym – different classes, different people, different changing room arrangements, where to get lunch, where the post office was, etc. It all sounds rather petty when I write it down. But all these changes all of a sudden made me feel a bit lost and sad. The sense of loss (a type of bereavement) accompanies all change and while we might be compensated in some way – a better environment, nicer shops, a quicker journey – we still have to give up things we are fond of, or at least used to, in any change situation.
In ordinary life we rely on most things not changing very much – we seem able to cope with small and incremental changes as long as there are not too many of them. But when something really big changes – like we lose our partner, or move cities, or are made redundant – it can be very stressful, even leading to mental anguish and breakdown.
So when those of us at the top think about changing things we need to pause and reflect. How would you feel if your partner sat in your chair when you got home tonight? Or if your car was changed for another brand?
Of course change is important and inevitable. But help your staff to change well, and without too much stress. Avoid unnecessary change (e.g. reorganisations, and new initiatives) and only do what the business needs you to do. Take your time, involving the staff teams at the earliest possible stage. Explain the issue you are facing and ask them to think about how they might solve it. Give clear parameters e.g. we need to save 20% to stay in business – how could you achieve it? Their proposals will usually be better than yours as they are closer to the issue.
I also like to think about continuity as the obverse of change. Very often we need to reassure and support our staff teams when change is introduced.
- The office is going to relocate but we will reimburse your costs for a year, and we will consult you on the design of the new workspace.
- This service will be externalised but we will do our utmost to protect your jobs and livelihoods.
- Your landlord will change but your rents and security of tenure are guaranteed.
Of course statements like these cannot be “just words”. We need to work with our staff or groups of customers to explain why the change is needed, what it means, how they can influence it, how they can be protected, how they can get support and how we, as managers, care about them. Coming to terms with change can take quite a long time and managers must be patient until nearly everyone has come to terms with the reality of the change. Make time to help people adapt intellectually and emotionally to the changes that are necessary.
Are you someone who likes change, or have you had enough? What works well to help people deal with necessary change?
Image: Kings Cross as it looked at the time of NHH’s move into their head office in nearby Killick Street.