Managing Organizational Change When a Change Is Not Welcome

Any system change from “status quo” can cause anxiety to people belonging to the system – family, team, business unit, or organization. The more complex the system and the more unexpected the change is, the more anxiety, fears, and underlying feelings the members of the system experience.

Consider change in an organization. Even when a change is generally welcome, many people resist the change – some openly, others passively; some consciously, others subconsciously. Resistance, fears, and anxiety is even more prevalent when a change is not welcome and is negative, whether in perception or reality. The recent years’ economy has been a powerful external driving force behind organizational change in many business, agencies, and governmental units. December 2007 through August 2010, US employment market experienced 6,213,880 layoffs. Such a change affects not only people who are forced out of their jobs, but it also affects morale, productivity, and engagement of workforce who remain employed. Organizations also have been applying swift management decisions focused on short term survival, which have been decreasing employee focus, productivity, and even had a negative effect on employee mental health (Adecco Group, 2009). Leaders and managers can chose the scope and timing of internally driven organizational change such as performance improvement initiatives; however they can not control, and sometimes not even predict externally driven organizational change. Nevertheless, leaders are yet responsible for managing an unwelcome organizational change.

In order to manage an organizational change over which we have no initial control and to “make lemonade from lemons”, it is essential to adhere to the main organizational change management components. We will also discuss all these components in detail in subsequent articles.

Creating a vision. A leader leads well only when he knows what direction he is leading his followers. Though it may be challenging to create a vision to manage an externally driven organizational change, such as downsizing, it is a very important component to start “on the right foot”. A leader’s vision would start from fully understanding organization’s current situation and the implications for future. For instance, a vision after downsizing may be securing jobs of current workforce for the next year, and rebuilding by 20% in the next two years. In crafting our vision, we need to be positive, but realistic. Employee involvement in creating a vision is critical to employees’ future ownership of the vision.

Setting strategic goals. Organizational change management requires setting strategic goals. Again, employee involvement in crafting the goals is very important. Goals would be backed up by short term objectives (2-8 weeks). These goals would differ from strategic goals developed during stable organizational times as they would be shorter termed. From leadership perspective, we would refer to these goals and objectives on daily basis, and would update our employees on progress on at least a weekly basis. First, it allows us to better measure the progress of change.Secondly, it involves our employees and provides them with a better sense of control when they know “where they are”.

Redeveloping organizational systems. This component would involve revamping organizational systems such as organizational structure (positions, roles, and reporting), financial systems and budgets, management and monitoring systems, and policies and procedures. Many organizations find in helpful to assign a role of “change agent” to a person or a group. Such an entity is charged not only with responsibility of leading systems’ redevelopment, but also is responsible of introducing and training others on system changes.

Managing people and their reactions. Although all discussed components are important, this component is critical in managing organizational change successfully. Organizational change management iceberg theory (Wilfred Kruger) explains that we can observe, measure and manage time, cost, and quality quite easily. However these variables are only the tip of the iceberg. The greater part of the iceberg – beliefs, perceptions, acceptance, power and politics – is “under water”, and can not be observed and measured easily. Nevertheless, managing the underwater part is essential in navigating organizational change around “the iceberg”. We can use several proven strategies in managing employees. Having an “open door” policy during a change, allows employees to air their concerns and reduce their anxiety. Acknowledging employees for their performance in a challenging environment would also help a leader in gaining her supporters. Keeping honest and frequent communication is also a needed approach by organization’s leadership.

Enhancing leadership skills. Developing and enhancing leadership skills is an ongoing process. Organizational change management often pushes a demand for such skills “above and beyond”. As leaders, we often find ourselves “outside of our comfort zone” when we need to deal with multiple organizational demands and huge resistance by our people. In an effort to reduce anxiety and resistant by our employees, first we would want to reduce our own anxiety and embrace a vision for an organization. Practicing decisiveness may also be beneficial in managing organizational change. Finally, as leaders we need to care for ourselves as much as we care for our employees and an organization.

Organizational change that is driven externally often can not be controlled or predicted. Yet as leaders we have duty and responsibility to manage. The more we adhere to the structure of organizational management components, the more success we will have, as measured by employee productivity, employee morale, organizational culture, and customer loyalty and satisfaction.