Change Reaction

Managing employees during the economic downturn requires candor and empathy.

Change happens. From a business standpoint, it can take the form of professional advancement, organizational re-structuring, strategic evolution, or acquisitions and mergers. In this day and age, the issue is no longer if change will happen, but when. Yet coping with it needn't be as confounding as many think.

The very idea of change, even in the best of times, is unsettling to most individuals. That fear rises exponentially when you toss in a devastated global economy, shattered personal finances and questionable leadership behaviors. Nevertheless, the American workforce is resilient and wants to actively participate in progressive change.

What remains puzzling is why the recurring process is often left to insensitive leaders who treat change as “just business.” Clearly, the workers affected by change experience it as much more than that.

At the core of managing employees during times of change is effective communication of a well thought-out plan. Management must commit to open and honest disclosures of facts that not only help people understand the rationale for change, but also how it affects — and hopefully benefits — them personally. Of course, it is difficult to rally followers behind any idea that doesn't make sense, let alone one with adverse personal consequences. If the masses are not buying the story, perhaps it warrants a second look.

There is no merit to purposely bending the truth or giving “head fakes” to avoid inevitable awkward situations. Sensitive facts that are not ripe for disclosure may simply be withheld. As uncomfortable as that may be at times, it's much better than lying!

Furthermore, the choice of language used to explain any change must be well-measured at the outset to gain trust and minimize skepticism. For example, the now failed merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler was trumpeted as a “merger of equals” with a remarkably high degree of cultural fit. Yeah, right. Similarly, the “synergy” cliché is not only overused, but has become synonymous for wholesale headcount reductions rather than operational harmony.

Access to leadership is also an important aspect of managing change. This is a great opportunity to informally promote objectives and listen to constructive feedback. It is definitely not the time to retreat to protective offices and ignore telephone calls or e-mails. When that happens, it is easy for followers to think the worst and look to the rumor mill for guidance.

Be Inclusive and Sensitive

It is foolhardy for a handful of people at the top of an organization to believe that they alone possess the right stuff to get the job done. It would be like an NFL quarterback claiming that the offensive line and special teams are unnecessary, or a fighter pilot discounting the value of the ground crew. Research shows that when stakeholders have a meaningful opportunity for input on matters that affect them, the likelihood of successful change management increases substantially. So, forget about one-man teams. Inclusion is the name of the game.

Neither can the emotional impact of change be ignored. The experience introduces employees to job uncertainty. Their social identity may be threatened by job changes. When the old way is left behind, it can generate feelings of shock, disbelief and anger. Empathy is the order of the day.

Perceptions of fair treatment during personnel selection and retention by both surviving and displaced employees will increase support for change. Requiring accomplished professionals to formally re-apply and interview for their current jobs is generally not well-received. On the other hand, companies should provide workers with genuine opportunities to be heard and systems of recourse.

Whether the circumstances involve a long-planned strategic change or crisis management, leadership style has a considerable influence on the result. Specifically, the most effective leaders will see beyond day-to-day administrative activities and define the future in a fashion that inspires employee commitment, invites intellectual participation, respects constructive dissent and instills pride by setting a positive example. This approach also builds trust and confidence as well as loyalty among followers. Further, job satisfaction is bolstered and productivity is enhanced by more positive attitudes toward assignments. Establishing this new vision early is a key, especially in managing rumor mills and views toward management's integrity.

The important role of middle managers must be recognized as well. This category of leadership is charged with implementing new strategies, often with new faces, and understanding employee needs in order to get the job done. In fact, middle managers have a greater influence over employees' sentiments about change than senior management.

Aligning human capital with business objectives lies at the core of a firm's financial success. The training and development arm of the company can lead the way by providing opportunities for employees to efficiently learn the behavioral and technical skills necessary to perform at their highest levels. This will not only help build competitive advantage, but it will lead to an atmosphere of openness that will aid information sharing and team building. With respect to performance management, measurable priorities should be clearly defined and shared across the organization. Those failing to meet those priorities should be held accountable. Conversely, celebrating accomplishments will highlight progress and build confidence.

To be sure, organizations shoulder a heavy burden in managing workers during times of change. On balance, employees must also be cognizant of their responsibilities. Regardless of personal feelings, once the course is set, they must do their best to get on board and contribute. Of course, there is absolutely no dishonor in moving on to avoid incongruence with personal values. If the job is no longer a fit, find one that is. Unfortunately, the best employees are often the first to go. Why? Because they can. When that happens, a firm's human capital is diminished at a time when it can least afford the loss.

The key for every individual is to keep their skills up to date so that they may truly function as a respected employee rather than an “indentured servant” without options for personal and professional satisfaction. Enlightened employers will appreciate the value added by such employees as they gain competitive advantages through successful alignment of more effective workers with more challenging business objectives.

Organizational change is not something to be feared. It offers exciting opportunities to re-imagine personal goals and adjust short- and long-term business objectives to better fit with evolving customer demands. Perhaps our former Army chief of staff said it best, “If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.”

Kenneth Baylor is president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Advanced Leadership Solutions.

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Want to Know More?

Kenneth Baylor will speak at the “Change Reaction: Managing Employees in Turbulent Times” boxed lunch at WasteExpo on Wednesday, June 10. The session will run from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. The cost of a ticket to the lunch is $40, although one ticket is included with the “full event” registration package and with Wednesday's “one-day” registration package.