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7 Ways to Get Your People to Embrace Change

Nancy Settle-Murphy

Overcome resistance to change by explaining the whys and hows behind tough decisions

You've agonized over a critical decision that will affect your entire organization. Your best communications consultant crafts a message from the senior executive team, clearly stating the business benefits and imploring everyone to support the decision. This finely-honed missive is distributed multiple ways, via:

  • front-line managers in small-group meetings
  • Web postings
  • e-mails
  • carefully-choreographed video and audioconferences

Following the announcement, you hear nothing, despite the email and voicemail accounts you've set up to field questions. You assume, optimistically, that people have accepted the decision and are willing to make the necessary changes. But as the weeks go by, it's business as usual—almost as if no one got the message in the first place.

What happened?
According to a study referenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article, employees of companies that explained decisions more fully were more than twice as likely to support decisions as workers who received less information. This article provides seven guidelines for engaging people in making needed changes by conveying the "how and why" behind critical decisions.

  1. Assume that people will need a lot of convincing that the decision is based on rational thinking, especially if your organization has a history of flawed decision-making. Let's say a new organizational model is being trumpeted as the best remedy for plummeting profits. If employees and managers can't understand and don't buy into the logic behind the new model, they are likely to resist efforts to change their jobs. Some resistance may be expected in any event, but the barriers to acceptance are far higher when people aren't clued in at the outset.
  2. Reveal who was involved in the decision. To the skeptical, it may seem that a handful of uninformed managers sat in a conference room somewhere in headquarters and spent very little time or thought evaluating trade-offs and weighing possible outcomes. Point out which organizations, and which people if necessary, were involved in the decision-making process and at what juncture. If a cross-section of functional managers across several functions provided input or had a vote, say so. The more people feel that their interests were taken into account, the better they tend to feel that the decision was probably a sound one.
  3. Trust and empower front-line managers to be the primary gatekeepers of important decisions. Inform supervisors of the decision in advance and provide opportunities for them to discuss the implications before it filters down to their employees. Nothing erodes managers' credibility like giving them only a piece of the message, or letting them know last, forcing them to make up their own stories as employees. Frontline managers usually have far more credibility than C-level managers when it comes to delivering "the real story." Equip managers with the content and tools they need to relay a compelling and truthful message.
  4. Segment your audience. Give functional managers enough of an insight into the decision- making process to enable them to add their own twist. Not everyone wants or expects the same level of detail about a decision. If you’re putting a stop to a promising new product design, people in engineering and manufacturing are likely to want to know what alternatives were considered and what criteria led to the decision. Sales and marketing may want to know more about to what degree customers' expectations and needs were factored in. Don't force managers to parrot the party-line without applying the appropriate organizational lens.
  5. Be honest about whether decisions can be changed. If a decision is immutable, say so. Organizations that claim all employees are equally empowered may inadvertently lead people to believe that they can influence the final outcome when in fact they really can't. So if you want feedback or questions, be clear about what kind of feedback you need, and what will happen to feedback and what won't. Inviting feedback with no plan to consider it will breed far more resistance to a decision than never asking for feedback in the first place.
  6. Clarify the intended outcomes for the organization. The more you can inform people about the motives and goals behind this decision, placing it in a broader business context, the more likely employees are to come forward with other ideas that can help achieve these goals as well. Of course, you'll have to put a process in place to make it easy to field and respond to suggestions.
  7. Acknowledge that the decision may bring difficult changes for some. Don't sugarcoat the decision with promises of greater shareholder value or a more productive workforce while ignoring the really tough issues many people will have to grapple with as a result of a given decision. Articulate the tough trade-offs that were involved and demonstrate an awareness of the implications in your communications.

Many organizations are tempted to short-circuit the process of communicating the "whys and hows" behind decisions in a misguided effort to accelerate adoption. After all, they may have spent months or years agonizing over a decision and once made, they just want the decision implemented—now.

In fact, by spending time up front in thoughtfully and respectfully communicating the reasons for decisions, chances are far greater that adoption to the needed changes will be far faster.

About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Getting Great Results Out of Virtual Meetings is a white paper available only to subscribers of Nancy's newsletter, Communique. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including Workshops and Webinars.

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