People Love Change

One of the greatest myths in management is the generalisation that people resist change. In fact people love change. Why do people go on holiday? Because it’s a change. People buy new cars, have improvements done to their houses, buy new wide-screen TVs and so on. The list of changes that people make is almost limitless.

At work, if you offer someone increased pay or a better job, it’s a change – and most people welcome it. Indeed in staff surveys people all the time raise the need for change – improved working conditions, better communication from top management, less stress at work – and so on. All these are changes that people want. They are not resisting change – they are begging for it.

So what changes are resisted? The commonest is where people perceive a potential loss. Note that we are talking here about perception. I once made the mistake of suggesting an improvement in a car scheme. The proposed new arrangements would have given everyone a better deal and more flexibility. It would also have made budgeting easier, so the proposed change was beneficial to the company as well. However, being new in the role, I had not understood the extent of negative politics in the organisation. There were those who took a delight in spreading mis-information, just to be obstructive and critical. So stories spread that the possible change was dis-advantageous.

Once I had realised that there were people purely engaged in mischief, I could go and explain to individuals what the implications were for each person so that they could see that they would be better off – and the new scheme was eventually implemented. My error could be seen as one of communication – and, at one level, that’s valid. I did make certain that the person in charge of the car scheme had presented the facts well – but I had not judged the political climate, where people did not go on the facts but on negative rumour-mongering. People’s perception was that they would be worse off, even if the facts said the opposite. Emotion trumps rationality, as the emotional intelligence people might predict.

In other contexts it’s clear that people’s perceptions do match the facts. Changes that result in loss of one’s job can create real, fact-based resistance. However even a change like this does not have to be resisted. I know of situations where the planned closure of a business has increased morale, because people knew where they stood and had support to manage the change. The uncertainty about the future of the business had reduced morale. Once people had been given an honest picture of what was going to happen, with clear opportunities for them to plan their futures, they were much happier.

Getting a Balance

Having said that we welcome changes that we want, we need to be careful about the pace of change. There is a danger that people can become change junkies – desiring the latest gadget, the newest piece of technology, the adventure holiday with the greatest adrenalin rush.

Any change requires us to learn to work with new circumstances. Such learning can sometimes divert us from learning that is more productive. For instance people can learn how to make really fancy PowerPoint presentations and show off at meetings. But is there any evidence that such change (learning) contributes to profitability, growth or any other strategic objective in the organisation? Could they have put their energy instead into improving capabilities that would have genuine business benefit? Given that we can’t be learning new things all the time, maybe there is a need for people to be clear about what learning is important.

An example of a worrying issue is the young rising star/high potential in the organisation who insists on moving jobs at a rapid pace. Such changes might increase learning but too often the supposed super-star manager is actually someone who moves on before their showy plans prove not to work. Moving on before you get found out may be a productive career strategy (for the individual), but it probably does not benefit the business. Somehow we need a balance between the legitimate desire of the fast track person to get a range of experiences (changes) and the need to test whether the person has the stickability to see ideas through into action.

Issues for the Development Professional

In the example of fast track managers, development professionals have a clear role to help them, and those responsible for managing them, to plan learning and development that is strategically integrated with job changes.

In the more general context we can tap people’s enthusiasm for change instead of stifling it. For example I have never come across a large organisation where there are not some people who want to see improvements (changes) in communication. I have been involved in creating large group events where around 100 people can get together, identify desired changes and create action groups that can go off and make the changes happen.

In the instance of communication, this did come up in one such large group event. Those keen to get changes formed into an action group. At a subsequent event this group was able to report back that it had initiated a staff-run newsletter and it had set up monthly meetings where main board directors were invited to attend to talk to an agenda created by the staff. The directors in the company had the good sense to realise that staff who were complaining could be given the task of sorting the problem. Not all organisations have directors with that good sense.

If, however, boards can be shown that people want changes for the better and that they can be mobilised to take action, then this has to be desirable. Clearly boards have to indicate any policy or other constraints, but usually such constraints are much less than people imagine.

Nothing I’ve mentioned is really complex – or even new. What seems to get in the way is the continual chanting of the untrue generalisation that ‘people resist change’. People resist some change – if they perceive that they are going to lose out. People welcome change that makes things better.

Ian Cunningham