Twelve lessons in positive change management

The Change Management Group has benchmarked the best management processes in a number of organizations and has summarized twelve lessons in positive change management that have emerged from their research.

Work With the Group

A senior manager has to work with the "natural ingredients" at hand, which requires careful study of the history of the group, and gives many clues to members‘ behavior. What has formed them in the past? How have they evolved and matured? A clear understanding of "what drives the group" must be achieved before a leader can introduce new elements into the mix. Ignorance of or purposely ignoring the natural order of a group may doom a change strategy to failure.

Confront Fear of Change

Asking people to make significant behavioral changes is the most frightening request one can make of them. Stress levels in organizations and people are directly linked to the level of change experienced. Underestimating their fear response and potential resistance is the most consistent mistake made by leaders when introducing change.

Consider the Group‘s Perspective

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When attempting to gain a group‘s support for needed change, the greatest leverage lies in discovering what self-interest they have in maintaining the status quo and what self-interest they have in making changes. A leader must walk in their shoes and appeal to their self-interest if it supports the overall organizational plan and does not create new problems. If senior management approaches the group or organization from the members‘ perspectives and understands what they have to lose, they will be able to design interventions that don‘t immediately trigger individual defense mechanisms.

Build Trust

If the doors to change are not open, then interventions must concentrate on teambuilding, trust building, and open/honest communications prior to the introduction of change. If the senior manager can lower the work group‘s fear levels, he/she can open the doors to change. If the doors to change are open, or even partially open, then the strategy should concentrate on methodologies that will keep them open. Authentic participation in the change process, with many opportunities to raise issues of concern, will help keep a group open to the possibility of significant change.

Avoid Manipulating the Workgroup

The worst change strategy is for a leader to pretend to listen to the work group and consider their concerns, having already decided what is appropriate in advance. This type of approach will backfire, because people will quickly perceive that they are being manipulated and conclude that the process is dishonest.

Another strategy that leads to failure is to only involve the work force in negative changes. If the leadership of an organization jealously guards the decision-making prerogatives of the organization during good times, it can't expect a very positive reaction when it turns around and says: "We have to cut medical benefit costs by 45 percent," or "We have to cut 20 percent of the work force and we want you to help us decide who should go." Employees will get involved in these types of "invited" change processes out of self-preservation, but this approach does not build the foundation of trust needed for productive future change.

Be Willing to Compromise

If senior management focuses on predetermined outcomes and displays an unwillingness to compromise, the possibility of work group support is minimized. Involved employees will suggest changes that greatly improve the original plan because the people most heavily affected by a plan will correct its obvious defects. Employees are much more likely to support a new set of ideas which they have had a key role in shaping.

Allow Group Ownership

Ownership of the proposal for change is instrumental to a successful change process. If the leader generates the ideas, then the leader should construct a process that allows the group members to take and make the ideas their own. When a senior manager approaches the group or organization from the members‘ perspective, he or she will be able to design interventions that don‘t immediately trigger defense mechanisms.

Actions vs. Words

People trust their leaders‘ actions, not their words. If words and actions are consistent, then a manager‘s credibility will be high. The staff will take their cues from the behaviors of senior staff members, despite all declarations of intent. Senior managers must follow up on the change process. Most employees quickly "burn out" on changes that are announced on a regular basis but are not consistently reinforced over a period of time. One well-researched change process that is properly implemented with employee support is worth more than numerous new programs, poorly prepared and presented in the same time period.

Reward New Behaviors Early

A senior manager cannot wait for examples of completely changed behavior to surface before rewarding the new behavior. Managers spend much more energy catching employees doing something wrong than recognizing what employees do right. Reinforce any significant movement in the right direction.

Financial Rewards Rarely Reinforce Behavioral Change

A false assumption held by many leaders is that the only effective way to reward or motivate their staff is by materialistic rewards. Most financial rewards are given on a yearly basis and have little impact on daily behavior.

Manage the Myths and Realities

During each stage of this process, senior management needs to manage the "myths and realities" of the organization. Most leaders believe that what they know and believe are the facts and therefore attention should be paid to their beliefs. They behave as if most other sources of information are irrelevant. Employees on the other hand will pay equal or greater attention to myths, rather than organizational realities, regardless of where they got the information. The myths are the rumors that flow rapidly through an organization and gain greater validity in employee's eyes as they are retold by greater numbers of people. Leaders must understand that myths become realities if they are believed and acted upon.

Integrity - the Most Important Variable

The most critical variable in the change process is a leader‘s personal integrity: Does the work group have good reason to trust the leader? Do the leader‘s actions and words match? Is he/she sensitive to work group needs? Does he/she treat group members as he/she would like to be treated? Does the leader communicate with the work group in an open and honest manner?

This material is copyrighted by John C. Bruckman, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission.

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