Avoid Three Common Mistakes When Launching Organizational Change

“What did we do to be treated so badly?” Alice shook her head, tears rolling down her face. “I’m just waiting to hear that I don’t have a job anymore.”

Twelve other people sat around the table nodding their heads in agreement.

It was midnight, end of the second shift at a Buffalo, New York plant for a global manufacturing company. Outside snow slammed against the windows of the conference room. It was two days before Christmas.

Several months earlier, the company had launched an organization-wide initiative to address evolving customer needs and improve the quality of their products. Although changes were progressing well in other locations, morale was extremely low at the Buffalo plant. My job was to find out why.

One of the others spoke up. “No one tells us anything since they announced this organizational transformation they keep talking about. It’s as though we don’t matter anymore. We get email after email filled with stuff, but no one comes to talk to us.”

“That’s right,” said a third person. “It didn’t used to be that way before you acquired us. This was our company, and we really made a difference. That’s why we chose to work here instead of somewhere else.”

It’s easy to underestimate the level of disruption that occurs when we launch a change initiative. Even when a change is positive, initially most people can only think, what will happen to me? Will I still have a job? What if I can’t take care of my family? Although these thoughts are common human nature, they have a profound impact on productivity and morale. Leaders often make three classic mistakes by:

  • Underestimating the power of the existing culture. Even with the best of good intentions, employees are used to doing their work in a certain way. Until they understand and have time to process the need for change, they will just keep doing what they’ve always done.
  • Moving too fast to implement changes while communicating too little or too late. Sometimes the pressure to just make things happen causes leaders to move forward before listening, assessing, and understanding the impact of the changes they wish to make. The result? Some employees shut down and let fear take over, others stand around and kvetch at the copy machine, and the rest keep charging ahead doing what they’ve always done—or worse, trying out new things that may not be beneficial. A lack of clarity around new roles and responsibilities is one of the biggest reasons change initiatives fail.
  • Forgetting the importance of connecting with people on all three levels:

 Intellectual:  Employees understand the rationale behind what needs to happen.

─ Emotional:  Employees buy in and want to support the need for change.

─ Practical:  Employees know how to make a personal contribution.

Organizational change is a process, not an event. Cookie cutter approaches don’t work because dynamics differ in every organization. Successful initiatives require a systematic, multifaceted change management process. Here are two excellent resources. Each provides a systematic approach to launching and sustaining successful change:

Back to our plant in Buffalo. It turned out that morale issues arose because corporate leaders did not appear in Buffalo to announce what was going to happen. Instead, they agreed that local Buffalo leaders would deliver all face-to-face communications. The goal was to reinforce their trust and to send this message to each employee:  You have run a successful organization for more than 50 years. As a newly acquired part of our company, we have every belief that your plant will continue to deliver high quality, innovative work. You are a critical part of this organization.

The intent was good—the understanding was not. Once corporate leaders understood how employees interpreted their absence, they modified their change management plans to make regular trips to meet onsite with local leaders and their teams. Morale improved exponentially.

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