Organisational Change - Making the best of bad news

Its not the change - its how you do it!

I recently held a workshop which had a section around organisational change and particularly redundancy.  It’s obviously a big subject at the minute, and one which is exercising many managers and HR professionals.

What struck me about the difference within this workshop to those I had held before was that there was less discussion about the case for redundancy.   There appeared a tacit acceptance that cutting back costs, and organisational change which may lead to redundancy was a way of life right now.

It got me thinking about changes which involved reductions or closures I had managed through in the past.  Some initiated by me, and some which were out of my control, but I had to do the “dirty work” so to speak.

The psychological profile and change

Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a psychological profiling tool which helps people understand how they take in and process information and also how they make decisions.  In the decision making arena some of us make decisions based on logical thinking and rationale, while some of us do so based on our feelings and the impact on people.  It will come as no surprise to you that given my passion for people, I come into the latter category.

Well at a feedback session I held a few months ago, we got to talking about redundancy, and someone stated, “It’s no good looking at redundancy as thinking or feeling process, the process of redundancy is inherently one of logical thinking, so feeling people naturally feel uncomfortable”

So I pondered this statement, because I had been through numerous organisational changes, and actually had never felt uncomfortable with the process.  So was my type indicator wrong?  Was I not a true feeling type?  Well no, of course not, that assumption would be too simplistic.

I realised that organisational change and reductions in numbers of staff in themselves wasn’t a big deal for me.  Not because I don’t care about the people involved in the process and the impact on them.  On the contrary, I realised it wasn’t a big deal for me, because I did care about the people involved and made sure I did everything I could to reduce or cushion the impact on my employees.

Now that’s not to say everyone I have managed through the process has been happy with what was happening.  I am guessing there are very few of us who are threatened with potential or actual loss of their livelihood who would feel happy.  But what can be done is to help them through the process.

Employee relations are key

With some managers and HR practitioners; employee relations in the context of organisational change especially reductions in staff or hours, is synonymous with the trade unions.  But it is much more, and there are lots of great managers and practitioners out there who know this.

Yes, there is a process to be gone through and legislation and regulations to adhere to, but here are my top tips for a manager or HR professional who may be taking someone through any change which is going to impact adversely on their working life.

  • Give them the bad news straight.  People have a remarkable capacity for accepting and processing bad news.   What they don’t like is not knowing, or having to guess what the true picture might be.
  • Be abundantly clear about the drivers for change.  If the change is imperative, then you will have good and sound reasons for it.  Show that you have considered all options and that you have no choice but to go for it
  • Talk Adult – Adult.  You are not responsible for their lives, but you have a responsibility for how you relate with them.  Do not let any fingers of blame point at you or take on board any guilt.  Likewise, treat people with dignity and respect.
  • Be Kind.  Understand that everyone will take the news differently, and that is ok.  Make sure you have support for those who may be affected most seriously and don’t compare the different ways people react.
  • Let them be negative.  In fact encourage negativity, but do it in a structured setting where you can pivot the beliefs and thinking about the impact of the change into a positive focus.
  • Encourage them to face fears.  By facing fears, people then turn their attention to solutions.  If they never face their fear, fear will be the driving force and will sap their energy.  Energy they can put into reskilling or finding alternative employment or other adjustments.
  • Let them talk as much as they need.   Ask them how regularly they want to be updated, in what format and what will work best for them.  Such time is never wasted.  It is much better to be proactive with time, rather than let the time bomb of the rumour mill tick.
  • Celebrate their successes.  Make them understand the vital contribution they make, the unique skill set they have at their disposal and help them identify how to make the most of the experiences they have accumulated while working for you.  This is the most vital time to do this.  It can actually engender great hope.

I know, I know, all of this sounds time consuming.  But honestly it doesn’t have to be.  All you have to do is genuinely appreciate and care about your people and it will come naturally.  It is better to use the time during the organisational change productively and positively than deal with unnecessary stress and disputes.

Later in the week, I have a brilliant guest blogger who has taken their organisation through significant change in a tough unionised environment with a great result.  Watch this space!

What do you think?  Do you have any strategies to help people through difficult changes?  We would love to hear from you.

Views: 1760

Comment by Susan Craven on May 11, 2012 at 10:01

When managing change it is also important to understand that employees do not necessarily adapt to change at the same rate. While some may still be in the denial stage, others may have moved into acceptance. We need to allow time for all employees to reach the acceptance stage.

Comment by Toni Rowley on May 11, 2012 at 10:43

Thank you for articulating the importance of authentic empathy in these situations.  It has been my experience that when this is truely present those affected by organisational change have more easily been able to reconcile the business decision and turn their attention to looking forward to future opportunities when they 'feel' respected and considered during the process of separation.     

Comment by Christina Lattimer on May 11, 2012 at 18:58

Thanks Susan and Toni for your added contributions.  I think you both make good points.  I have seen some leaders/managers try to shield their employees from bad news for the best possible reasons, but it is always counter-productive. People just then fill in the gaps with their imagination and that's often a lot worse than the truth! 

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