While a natural part of life, change can still be a challenging – even frightening — thing for people. So how does a leader manage change so that the necessary changes can be made, and yet not completely derail his or her team?
- The concepts behind change,
- Factors in the change process,
- And steps in the change process.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Change can strike fear in the hearts of some people. Why is that?
Dr. Jeff Fox: There are many reasons why people fear or do not like change. Fear of the unknown probably tops the list. Being creatures of habit and getting comfortable with the status quo is another reason. I think it might go deeper than that though. They might be justifiably wondering what will happen. Will I gain or lose with this change. Will I lose my positon, job, or status? Will I lose or gain pay? Self-doubt might creep in. Aren’t I or we good enough as we are? Even more deeply, it might be that many people have experienced change occur where it was done poorly, for the wrong reasons, or way too often.
I have always considered myself a change agent or put another way a transformational leader. One question I like to ask is, why? Why are we doing it that way or why are we doing this or that? Just to ask this question will often ruffle feathers. We need to ask this question often. The answer I almost always got was, “because we have always done it that way”. Sometimes a more defensive answer would be “if you don’t like it that way there is the road or door”. First, because someone ask such a question does not mean they don’t like whatever “it” is. Yet we tend to get defensive don’t we. Second, it is good for people to ask why. As a leader we should encourage that and always be ready to answer “why."
JCH: Change is so often seen as a negative thing… But can’t change also be good for an organization?
Jeff: Change is often seen as negative, but it really doesn’t have to be. I think there are two parts people judge as whether it is good or bad. The first part is the process. How one goes about change makes a big difference. The process might come across as negative. I would argue if that is the premise to begin with then that might speak as to the existing culture of the agency with such issues as goodwill and trust. Some might view change like making law. The saying is you don’t want to see how the sausage is made!
The change itself might be viewed as good once the dust settles. Some agencies are tradition-bound. I actually love tradition. I personally am not crazy about change. However, change is needed in life at times and it can be good. There was a joke that I use to hear about an agency. It went something like this: 70 years of tradition uninterrupted by change. Think about that 70 years of no change! The world has changed drastically in 70 years. Of course, this was a joke and hyperbole, but there was an element of truth to the joke. We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we do need to change the bathwater.
It takes leadership and courage to create and make change work.
JCH: How do you address passive-aggressive resistance to structural change?
Jeff: This will occur with some people. If it is very short term and does not harm the mission or daily tasks at hand you can tolerate some of this. However, we are paid to work so work we must. We have a duty to our employer and to those we serve. So very mild cases of resistance can be tolerated but not if it creates dereliction of duty. It can also become a cancer that spreads if allowed to grow and fester.
This should be anticipated and addressed in positive ways from the start. I went through exactly this situation many years ago when our agency changed our yearly evaluation system. The system that was created lumped everyone together. Either you were okay, or you weren’t. So those who had barely done enough to get by boasted to those who had been hard workers that their hard work meant nothing now and they were all in the same boat. I addressed it as a group in a general sense that we must continue to do our jobs to a high level. Then, I addressed it with the few who voiced concern over it. I explained that their jobs were too important to only do the bare minimum. I asked those I spoke with, would you want the teacher of your children to do the bare minimum in teaching your children. Would you want the doctor who was operating on you to do the bare minimum? I explained that each of them was better than that and we had jobs of equal importance and we must do our duty to the best of our ability. I also addressed the elephant in the room. Yes, it wasn’t a good system they had created. Hopefully, it would change. I was so proud of my people. They didn’t let up at all. They continued to do excellent work. The following year the system changed back. The point to the story is you can’t ignore elephants in the room. Nor can you ignore unpleasant issues when they occur. They need to be dealt with or they will get worse.
Change needs to be based on sound decision making
that is always rooted in what is ethical, sound policy, well researched, and thought through.
On the other hand, we do not want to suffer from analysis paralysis.
JCH: What is the role of external stakeholders, such as vendors, ethnic groups, the community at large etc., in organizational changes? How can leaders effectively manage change in light of these influential audiences?
Jeff: This is a little tricky. I think it depends on many variables. Anyone one of these groups could have been the impetus for the change to begin with. Citizens may have demanded change through an election or by mere pressure. Vendors may have caused it by no longer producing a certain piece of equipment. Technology itself drives much change. The more one can foresee the need for change coming the better. Purposeful and planned change is better than forced changed without any input or notice.
Buy in from all is ideal. Giving voice to those involved either as the recipient or giver of whatever the change involves is best. However, it takes leadership and courage to create and make change work. Sometimes change may not work. Sometimes we need to modify change as we go. We must be careful with change because all too often we are dealing with people’s careers and maybe even their freedom and lives in some cases. Given that, we should never take change lightly. Change for change sake is usually not a good idea.
I will say I have seen snake oil salespeople at work. They usually don’t have real skin in the game. They are what I like to call seagull managers. They fly in, make a mess, and leave. In some cases, they have been consultants who make grandiose promises of near instant and massive success. I am very suspicious of these types of change agents. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true! Change needs to be based on sound decision making that is always rooted in what is ethical, sound policy, well researched, and thought through. On the other hand, we do not want to suffer from analysis paralysis.
I leave the readers with this story:
There was an army barracks that had on its duty roster 4 soldiers to guard at all times a concrete slab in front of the barracks. The soldiers changed shifts guarding the slabs for many years. Different commanders came and went, and the tradition continued.
After many years, a new commander was assigned to the barracks. Amongst the things he did was asking why things were done the way they were. When he asked why soldiers were guarding the slab, he was told, “We’ve always done it this way. It’s our tradition. Our former commanders instructed us to do that.” The commander was adamant on finding out why.
He went to the archives to look for answers and he came across a document that had the explanation. The document was very old. It had instructions written by one of the retired commanders who had even passed away. The new commander learned that over 80 years ago, the barracks wanted to build a platform where events could be performed. When the concrete slab was laid, wild animals walked over it at night before the slab would dry. The soldiers would fix it the next morning but when evening came the same thing would happen. So, the commander ordered that 4 soldiers should guard the concrete slab for 3 weeks to allow it to dry.
The following week the commander was transferred to another post and a new commander was brought in. The new commander found the routine and enforced it and every commander that came did the same. Eighty years later the barracks continued guarding a concrete slab.” Author Unknown.
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