The art of change management

Oct 01, 2018
The success of any change programme will depend on an organisation’s ability to get a small number of things right.

BY DR GERRY McMAHON

If today’s workplaces are to survive and prosper into the future, change must be accepted as a normal part of life. The drivers of organisational change are many and varied. They are also constantly increasing due to influences such as globalisation, competitive pressures, political and economic developments, and ongoing technological improvements.

As a result, ‘change management’ covers a host of initiatives including mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, entering new markets, developing new products and services, introducing new technology, changing organisational processes, upskilling, upsizing, downsizing and the re-organisation of work.

Employee resistance and the law

Employee resistance is the most common problem faced by management when implementing change. Such resistance frequently manifests itself in an appearance at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or the Labour Court, though it spans a continuum from passive withdrawal from the process to actively sabotaging the change, thus ensuring its failure.

Of course, in general, changes cannot be made to employees’ terms and conditions of employment without their consent. Many employment contracts contain a ‘variation’ or ‘mobility’ clause that may allow amendments to be made to the contract without employees’ consent. However, these clauses are limited in that they will only allow the employer to make reasonable changes to non-material terms and conditions.

Hence, for example, if an employer fails to engage or consult in respect of the change, an employee could resign and claim constructive dismissal. The claim would be that the organisation acted unreasonably and/or that the organisation breached its contracts of employment by amending the terms without consent. Should consent be sought but not forthcoming, an organisation would find it difficult at that stage to proceed with the changes across the board.

In deciding on these claims, the WRC will usually examine the extent to which the employer acted reasonably by engaging and/or consulting with staff and whether employees’ consent was unreasonably withheld.

The reasons for employee resistance to change include the following:

  • People are satisfied with, or prefer, the status quo;
  • The change is seen as a personal threat;
  • The cost of the change seems to outweigh the benefit and the change isn’t going to be a success anyway; and
  • Management is perceived to be making a mess of the change.
Related thereto, organisational change is often associated with significant risks to employees’ health and is equated with high levels of stress. Hence, it should be no surprise that all of the effective ‘change models’ acknowledge that:

  • People take time to accept change;
  • They experience a psychological and emotional process in doing so;
  • During this process, feelings of emotional distress, helplessness and meaninglessness are common; and
  • Employees eventually accept the change(s) and may even find meaning in their revised role or setting.
However, it is also well known that many change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives as they are undermined by employee sabotage, falling morale, lost productivity or industrial action. To enhance the prospect of successful change, the following guidelines therefore warrant consideration.

1. Specify your ‘change’ objectives

At the outset of the process, list the objectives of the change programme. This list of specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-bound (SMART) objectives should be framed in terms of both business and employee outcomes. What are the perceived advantages of the change programme? What are the assessment criteria and targets?

2. Involve employees from the outset

Research confirms that the best way to avoid negative consequences is to involve staff in the decision-making from the very outset. Related thereto, empirical research reveals that good communication increases acceptance, openness and commitment to change. It is also true that a deeper strategy of participation allows for an array of options and opinions to be elicited and considered. By being involved, employees are more likely to understand the rationale for – and to influence the nature of – the change, thus reducing their anxiety and resistance levels.

A common approach is to clearly outline the business case for (and inevitability of) change and to invite the employees\union to help in the search for a solution. This has merit in helping to minimise any negative fall-out that would accompany a process which simply tells employees that their terms and conditions (and job security) are under review. By engaging the union’s support in creating both clear business and people objectives, the change path should be smoother and completed more quickly.

For example, a practical output from such a process may include supporting or financing individuals facing redundancy in finding new employment or developing new skills. For those employees opting to leave, the provision of career transition support to help them identify other suitable employers and roles will ensure that they feel supported in moving on, protect the employer’s reputation and minimise the prospect of the employee becoming disengaged and\or disruptive.

Of course, in these circumstances some organisations take what’s termed the ‘co-optation’ route, where they pay off the leaders of a resistance group by giving them a key role, seek their advice to enable their approval and emphasise the value placed on their opinions. This is largely a ‘needs must’ combination of manipulation and participation. In a similar vein, some organisations prefer to progress change via coercion, as they apply direct threats or force on the resisters (e.g. threats of redundancy, transfer, loss of promotion, negative performance appraisals or bad references). Dimensions of this approach were identified in an ESRI study, which found that employers who faced employee resistance were more likely to increase their use of part-time workers and job rotation techniques. However, the fall-out from such a strategy should be carefully considered (e.g. reduced trust levels, declining morale and productivity, and labour turnover).

3. Tune into the employees

While engaging key staff (and, if applicable, their union representatives) is essential, the prospect of success is likely to be significantly enhanced through a good communications strategy. By extending communication across all areas and levels, misinformation and misinterpretation can be minimised. Hence, fora should be provided where employees can share their concerns and be listened to. By encouraging questions, listening to employees and reflecting appropriately thereon, staff concerns can be allayed as they gain a better understanding of the necessity and format of the change – and how their issues are being addressed in the new order.
Success in implementing change is normally associated with those who must live or give effect to the change. It is therefore important to view the change process through the eyes of the most crucial participants in the process including the managers who establish the priorities, devise the strategies, control the resources and manage the performance levels. The appropriate response is to listen to their concerns and think constructively and creatively, rather than defensively, about how to respond to them.

Employees need to know what is happening, why it is happening and how it will impact on them. This has major implications for communication, training and follow-up with staff. At the most fundamental level, this is about helping employees to view or redefine their value in terms of the range of skills and competencies they have to offer, and to find opportunities for deploying their abilities.

4. Select leaders and support managers

Some organisations recognise that there are proactive and open-minded managers and staff who embrace change willingly and effectively. Their identification and engagement throughout the organisation can help ensure that it’s not perceived as just a ‘top down’ or executive onslaught.

Dr Gerry McMahon is Managing Director at Productive Personnel Ltd., a human resources consultancy and training company.