by Garold Markle
I recently met with a project team who was trying to increase employee ownership of a new change initiative. They were tasked with the introduction of a new medical information management system that would greatly enhance efficiency and improve patient experience. To them, the benefits were so large and obvious that push back and lack of enthusiasm demonstrated by some of the patient enrollment, billing and scheduling personnel seemed incongruous.
Something about the team’s proposed solution for raising employee spirits didn’t sit well with me. Developing a campaign slogan for the program roll out and awarding a prize to the individual who came up with the winning name, seemed more than a bit empty. It seemed to avoid the real issue entirely. Yes, people are generally not enamored with change. Learning to do old things in a new way is seldom fun. But, when it comes to organizational redesign to increase efficiency, a more salient fear is the consequences success might bring to those whose jobs are largely a function of rework and redundancy. Organizational efficiency often has personal implications.
“Well, they all know we’re growing. Good employees shouldn’t be fearful they’ll lose their jobs. We’ll find something else for them to do,” said one frustrated manager.
“Yeah. They’ll find a spot. We need all the talented people we can get,” said another. “Let’s just tell them that they’ll all have a job and we won’t lay off anyone because of the new system,” he continued.
“Wait a second, folks,” chimed in the HR Director. “We can’t say that. We certainly can’t promise there won’t be some fall out.”
“That’s right,” said another manager. “I’ve got a couple I’m just dying to get rid of, anyway. Their jobs definitely will be affected.”
I interjected with a question. “How many of the employees whose jobs will be made redundant can go three months without a paycheck?”
“Three months?” said a first line supervisor. “Shoot! Most couldn’t go one. The folks we’re talking about are at the bottom of the earning curve. They live paycheck to paycheck.”
“I’ll bet not many of us in this room could easily go more than a month without a paycheck. That’s pretty serious stuff,” added another manager.
“Even if someone is reasonably confident that they’ll be kept around once their current position is eliminated, don’t you think it’s prudent for them to worry a little bit?” I asked. “If something happens and a new position doesn’t materialize, the results for that individual and her family could be catastrophic, right? A slogan is not going to address that fear. What do you think would?”
To make a long story short, we determined that a slogan contest was fine, but a better way to gain buy-in with the program was to talk to people as individuals. Not everyone is fearful. Some who are, should not be. Some who aren’t worried, might actually be wise to contemplate other options.
One of the executives in the room suggested that HR help the group devise a list of positions that are likely to be needed for the expanding organization. While no promises can be made, we could certainly begin counseling individuals on the type of opportunities that might be coming in the not too distant future. And clearly several of the positions that will populate that list would be a step up for some of the affected people. Change might turn out to truly benefit them.
Fortunately, at this organization, they have a formal coaching system already in place that structures a two-way exchange between managers and direct reports about career growth and development. They already know how to do it. A recommendation was made to move the annual information exchange forward on the calendar for some of those in the danger zone. Every effort will be made to reassure the strong contributors that they will be actively considered for growth opportunities. In some cases, they’ll be purposely given exposure opportunities to roles in which there is a need and potential fit.
Those in jeopardy should have several months to prepare and develop themselves for new positions. Those not so encouraged or who don’t want to evolve or change should be able to work with their managers on transitioning to another opportunity outside the organization. They can look for a job while having a job and even get a recommendation from their existing manager as they seek to continue their career in a paper intensive position in a less progressive organization.
The moral of this story is simple. While continuous process improvement may be essential to the survival of an organization, it is often by its very design, threatening to individual livelihood. As such, it is both natural and normal for people to fear change on a personal level. To minimize that fear and maximize cooperation, individuals need to interface with their direct reporting managers about what change could mean to them and be encouraged to optimize around a win-win solution. No programmatic slogan or rah-rah speech from the big boss will substitute for that personalized connection.
So, how can you be both efficient and not scary?
- Institutionalize Deep Dialogue: Use a program like Catalytic Coaching to ensure that managers listen to employee dreams and fears and engage them in a personal development plan that helps shape a growth-oriented future. Update quarterly and recalibrate annually.
- “It’s Not About the Bike”: That was the name of Lance Armstrong’s first autobiography. His main point, of course, was to focus less on the mechanism and more on how you use it. In this case, and with all due respect, I could care less what you call your program. A more important question might be: How does it impact the people who use it?
- Don’t Assume: If you love me, tell me. Don’t wait until the exit interview to tell someone that you thought of them as a high potential C-level succession candidate.
- Don’t Assume II: If you don’t like me, tell me. As soon as possible, please. Don’t assume a poor performer will pick up on muted sarcasm or a damning with faint praise. Spend less time with bad employees, so you can spend more time with good ones. Cut bait and move on.