Navigating change and transitions is one of the most difficult aspects of being a leader and manager. In general, people don’t like big changes. They disrupt routine and bring about uncertainty and fear. But change is also inevitable. And while you can’t eliminate people’s fear from it, you can respond to it differently to make these periods of upheaval more comfortable and tolerable.
The primary purpose of managing your employees during transition or change is to make the change easier for them so that they stay focused on their jobs. Transition periods tend to be less productive, largely because they ask people to juggle more responsibilities, a notorious productivity killer, but also because this feeling of something ending, the lack of clarity about the future, or simply the time-consuming job search process some may have to begin takes people away from their jobs.
And while this is understandable, it’s important to try as hard as possible to keep this from happening. Declining productivity helps no one, and it’s up to management to make sure this doesn’t happen during a change period.
Open and Honest Communication Right from the Beginning
Anyone who has been through organisational change knows that the first thing that happens after the change is announced is that rumours start and spread. People begin theorising about what’s going to happen, often saying with certainty things still undecided or that are simply untrue.
Rumours are bad for company morale, and bad company morale hurts productivity. You don’t want people gathering at water coolers to gossip about what’s going to happen. This not only takes people away from work, but it creates a rather uncomfortable workplace environment that’s not conducive to productivity.
Beware of social media as well. People are spending a lot more time on social media now and rumors on social media can not only hurt your employees productivity at work, but could cause your customers to question your company’s stability as well.
The best way to avoid this from happening is to be open and upfront right from the beginning. As soon as the change becomes official, set up a meeting to announce it to people and to explain some of its implications. Make sure to answer all questions as openly as possible, and to also be realistic about some of the things that can happen. Don’t reassure everyone their job is safe if this is not the case, and don’t talk about maybe scenarios. If you don’t know the answer to something, say you don’t know. Divulging possible outcomes is not really going to help anyone.
Define Roles as Soon as You Can
One of the first questions anyone asks during a period of change is: will my job be safe? If it’s a simple change of management, then there’s likely little that will happen in terms of organisational restructuring, unless the new person comes in with a team already in place.
However, when the change takes place in the context of a merger or an acquisition, there will be a lot more questions, and anxiety will run much higher. In these kinds of scenarios, it’s important to go through a few important steps, mainly:
- Determine where there are skills gaps and redundancies. If layoffs or hires will be necessary, it’s important to determine where as soon as possible.
- Figure out the new organisational structure and define each role and its new responsibilities. It may be a good idea to work with a professional organisation for this part. These HR specialists know how to attract top talent with strong employer branding and on-message job descriptions, which will make it much easier to fill your new positions.
- Work with people whose jobs may be affected by the transition. If there are going to be layoffs, consider working to help those being let go find new positions or prepare their resume to apply for different jobs.
- Be picky when you recruit. It’s hard enough to manage this transition, don’t make it harder by hiring the wrong people, even if this means being more patient than you might like in the recruiting process.
Taking care of this aspect of the transition right from the beginning will help to ease people’s concerns. Those who have bad news coming to them will get it as soon as possible, giving them time to formulate a strategy moving forward. And those who will be unaffected, or who will be assuming new roles, will be able to move past this period of doubt and uncertainty and continue focusing on the tasks at hand.
Make It a Collaborative Process
While some decisions surrounding the transition will need to be made by small groups of upper management, the more you can get people involved in the process, the better. This will enhance employee buy-in, and since collaboration enhances productivity, it will keep you from falling behind as this transition occurs.
A way to start doing this is to solicit questions from your employees. Right from the very beginning, ask people what’s on their mind, and then take these questions to the relevant parties for answers. Coming back to people with responses will make them feel as though they are involved in the process, and this will keep engagement high throughout the period of change.
But wherever possible, it’s a good idea to hear more from people. Collaboration could be as simple as asking people to come up with a new name for the department or asking people to come up with ways to welcome new team members. Setting up transition teams that can help facilitate the change is also a good move. Not only does this involve more employees in the decision-making process, but it gives people another outlet for asking questions that isn’t the water cooler.
Keep an Honest Perspective
No matter how much you try, change periods are still tough. Even in scenarios where there are no layoffs, it’s difficult to quell people’s fear about the unknown. However, if you take the right approach to managing employees through change, focusing on open and honest communication, while also preparing yourself for the bumpy road ahead, you should be able to keep productivity at normal levels even as the organisation weathers significant change.
My next book
With many thanks to Katherine Burke for this guest post. She makes some great points.
There are some horror stories around change management during periods of change. In fact, these will feature in Rachael McGann, Kylie Groves’ and my next book. If you’ve got some stories to share, please feel free to get in touch.
SOME THINGS TO PONDER
- How much time does your organisation put into managing employees through change?
- Do you consider the perspective of the employee when planning change? For example – if this was me, how would I like to be treated? What would I want to know?
- What’s the cost of not putting this time into managing employees through change?
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