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Embracing Change is the Secret to Organizational Success - and HR Holds the Key

During this time of massive disruption, HR Professionals are having to implement organizational changes with a frequency and severity that, for many of us, is unprecedented. And at the same time, you are also having to help your people cope with a surge in anxiety and wellbeing issues caused by the impact of COVID-19.

The wellbeing of your people, and consequently the success of your organization, hinges on every one of your employee's individual ability to embrace change.

Ensuring your people are ready, willing and able to embrace change has become business-critical.

To achieve this, you will need both of the following:

  1. Leaders throughout your organization who are able to lead the delivery of successful and sustainable change.
  2. Everyone in your organization possessing the skills to accept change, adapt and move forward with commitment and intent.

Leading Change

Unfortunately, genuinely skilled change leaders are thin on the ground. 88% of change initiatives fail to deliver what they set out to achieve, according to research by Bain & Co. A similar ratio is true for business strategies, mergers and acquisitions – the vast majority fail to live up to expectations.

The key role of today's leaders is to help their people want to change

The reasons for this all-too-common phenomenon include a lack of clarity about what the change or strategy is trying to achieve, and why; lack of understanding of the implications of the change; disingenuous engagement; one-way communications; obsession with process over outcomes; a change-averse culture; not setting the initiative up to succeed; and forgetting that emotions trump logic every time.

Of course, all of this boils down to leadership. The vast majority of change leaders mistakenly believe that logic, spreadsheets, broadcast communications and project management is sufficient to deliver change – and consequently they fail 7 times out of 8.

Change is not about systems or processes or financials or project plans. Change is about people. And people are messy, emotional beings. We humans care so strongly about intangible, emotional things like status and fairness and autonomy and identity, that anything that impacts these feelings will instantly raise our barriers to change.

Perhaps my favourite piece of employee engagement research was a study of 50,000 employees conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council back in 2004. One of its key conclusions was that the most important driver of employee engagement is relevance. People who are motivated and committed feel relevant to the company: they have a clear connection between their role and the organization’s strategy. They feel that they matter. No PowerPoint presentation or project plan could ever engender such a feeling. Only genuine, empathetic, authentic, personal leadership can do this.

After decades of helping leaders to lead successful change and build change-ready cultures, I have come to realize four fundamental facts about this fascinating subject:

  • All change is personal. Even the most complex organizational change programme is actually the culmination of a myriad of individual, personal changes.
  • Every one of us erects our own unique barriers to change. It is a reflex human response that we automatically resist when big change is done to us. Our resistance may last a few seconds or a lifetime, and each of us has our own set of default barriers, which we can learn to overcome.

  • All change is emotional. Logic alone will never bring about genuine and sustainable change.

  • We only change if we want to. No-one changes simply because they are told to. We only change if we want to.

The key role of today’s leaders is to help their people to want to change.

Embracing Change

We all know that employee engagement and wellbeing are key to business success. If people are well, motivated and engaged, they will deliver. Actually, only when they are well, motivated and engaged will they deliver.

And your people are going through an incredibly uncertain and destabilising time at the moment. Their world has been upended by this pandemic and the worldwide reaction to it. They are bombarded by a 24/7 media that loves to catastrophise and governments who, fairly or otherwise, seem to be making policy up on the hoof.

Your people are anxious about the physical and mental health of their loved ones. They worry about the future of the company and their own future. They fear catching the virus. They fear being made redundant. Many are anxious about working from home, others about going back into work. They fear for their children’s future. They wonder whether a family Christmas will be possible this year

In normal times, 80% of our thoughts are negative (the remnants of an evolutionary survival instinct). But these are far from normal times. The current levels of negativity and uncertainty can be overwhelming. Our mental wellbeing is on the line.

We are not powerless. We have control over one critical thing - how we react to the change, and this can make all the difference.

Sometimes we can feel powerless in the face of major change that is forced upon us. But we are not powerless, for we have control over one critical thing – how we react to the change, and this can make all the difference.

Your people need help to understand that the emotions they are experiencing are normal. This is simply what happens when major change is done to us. This seemingly innocuous first step can be very powerful.

During one of the Embracing Change workshops I was running for the employees of a global fund manager last year, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the delegates was discreetly wiping tears from her eyes during the first session. She came up to me at the break and thanked me. “My father died last month and you have just described the exact emotions I have been going through. I had no idea they were normal. I cannot tell you how much of a relief that is to know that!”

But knowing that our emotions are OK is just the first step. We also need to take stock, embrace the changes and move on. To do this, your people need to be encouraged to articulate their fears and concerns – about COVID-19, about the business, about the new strategy. Giving voice to our concerns, getting them out on the table, lessens their impact and then enables us to start to overcome them.

Your people will need help to detach themselves from their negative thoughts. They need help to ensure that their anxiety or depression does not define them. They need help to shake off any lingering feelings of victimhood. They need help to take responsibility and to become their own catalyst for change. They need help to embrace change and look for opportunities.

They need the power to change.

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