When employees show resistance to change in the organization, it is not necessarily due to the change itself, it is rather due to failed communication.
A few months ago, I held an employee meeting in one of Columbus’ subsidiaries. I presented Columbus’ new strategy, and after the presentation I asked enthusiastically: Are you with me? And was met with resounding silence!
This reaction is the worst you can meet when trying to sell a new idea. But at the same time it is a reaction most leaders have experienced. Especially when communication is about changes.
The experience made me reflect on an advice which Kierkegaard formulated long before we knew the word change management.
”If One is Truly to Succeed in Leading a Person to a Specific Place, One must First and Foremost Take Care to Find Him Where He Is and Begin There”.
I had realized that it would take a good amount of sale, communication and persuasion to get the employees accepting the new mindset and objectives, because they feel safe in the former strategy and understand the background for it. Nevertheless, that was the task, and it was the right thing for the company. I also knew that it would be a hard mountain to climb, but in spite of the that, the experience with total silence surprised me.
Seen with Kierkegaard’s eyes, it should not have come as a surprise to me. You must meet people where they are. People accept gradually and cannot be informed of radical changes and accept them the second after. Most people need to think about the changes and the consequences. Feel them, sleep on them and play with the thought. Only then we accept the challenge, and we can start to consider solutions.
A change in an organization consists of the sum of individuals who change behavior together, and cannot be implemented without a large number of people changing the way they act. And it takes a long time go get many people to change behavior.
Columbus’ new strategy had been under preparation for a long time, and I was responsible for it. Every aspect of the strategy had been turned over with the board, external advisors, customers, senior executives, and furthermore a Columbus employee network had worked on the strategy for a long period and contributed to fundamental parts of it.
I realized that resistance to change does not necessarily come with the idea of whether the strategy is good or not. Of course, I argued in this track, but the employees did not hear that. For them, it was about something completely different, which was the fear of losing control of their everyday lives and close surroundings.
The fear of losing control of working hours, the office space, losing close colleagues, the team or the leader they are happy to work with. We are all masters in designing our immediate environment, and therefore we fear what changes can do to it. Changes threaten the regular skiing trip with friends, the picking-up-kids-day or the window seat in the office. In a new team with a new leader, we cannot be sure of the privileges.
Then comes the fear of losing control of the future. We are used to being able to look forward so we can prepare for what is coming and how to do our job. With a new strategy, we cannot see as far as we used to, or we have to look a complete different and unknown way.
I learned a lesson, and I had to go back to the drawing table. Not because the strategy should be altered, but because the process and communication needed to be reconsidered. It is impossible to eat an elephant in one bite, but if served in smaller pieces, most people can follow.
Today’s employees are busy and they know where they are heading. They have full speed on their ambitions, skills and self-confidence. It means that they can be difficult to lead – and as a manager, you must fight for their attention and convince them that the company’s strategic journey is important to them.