Human beings don’t like change. The familiar feels comfortable, even if it prevents us from moving forward. I recently found a classic Harvard Business Review article by Paul Lawrence that explored why we resist change—and what we can do about it.
The first part of the article examined a study of how factory machine operators responded to a minor change in work procedures. One group was called to a room and told of the change. Despite extensive training in the new procedure, productivity dropped by a third. Relations between management and the operators became strained and turnover increased.
Management invited another group of operators to discuss the benefits of the proposed change, then worked with them to figure out the best way to put it into action. Productivity improved. There was no drama and no turnover.
The takeaway seems obvious: When implementing change, involve the employees who are affected by it. But Lawrence decided to dig deeper. He wondered what kind of “participation” was most likely to inspire participants to feel personally invested in making change successful.
Drawing on his own research, Lawrence recalled the relationship between a production operator and an engineer in charge of testing a new product. They collaborated daily. The engineer would suggest modifications, asking the operator to experiment with them and offer her feedback. The operator often suggested ideas of her own, which the engineer always considered and asked her to explore. It was a productive relationship.
Later, a second engineer came to the same operator with a new product part he wanted her to try out. He had never spoken to her before and had little to say now. While he wanted her help, he wasn’t interested in her ideas. Lawrence noticed the operator didn’t handle the part with the same care she used with the first engineer. She also seemed pleased when the part failed inspection.
In both cases the operator was asked to “participate” in implementing a change, yet her reaction was very different. Lawrence wrote, “Participation is a feeling . . . not just the mechanical act of being called in to take part in discussions.” Enlisting employees in change initiatives is not just a strategy you pull out when you need it. It works best when it continues a relationship that is already based on collaboration, respect and appreciation.
“Participation is a feeling . . . not just the mechanical act of being called in to take part in discussions.”
We saw this with one of our clients, a call center. The center was tightly controlled, with excessive rules, infrequent communication and high turnover.
The call center managers knew they needed change, and started with themselves. They embraced The FISH! Philosophy. They worked harder to Be There, checking with agents daily and responding to their concerns. They made their day with regular acts of appreciation and thanks. They found Play-ful ways to make the demanding work environment more fun. They consciously choose their attitudes in challenging situations.
The relationship with agents began to feel like a partnership. Trust grew. Agents began to offer ideas on their own to improve the business. When managers monitored customer calls, they could hear the “smiles” in the agents’ voices.
Change also became easier. “It used to be that every time we wanted to make a change we had to go through these huge change management cycles,” manager Mary Hogan said. “We don’t have time for that anymore. The more trust we build with employees, the more confident they feel about the quick shifts we may need to make.”
The relationship was tested when rumors of a merger surfaced. “In the past there would have been so much fear,” Hogan said. But managers kept the agents constantly updated. The merger fell through, Hogan noted, but “because of the trust that had been built, there was a calmness that boggled my mind.”
As you move through 2017, focus on building relationships based on collaboration, respect and appreciation. When change comes—and it will—you’ll be better prepared to step forward with trust and confidence.