Dealing with the Human Side of Change

Dealing poorly (or not at all) with the human element is usually where change initiatives go south.

Bill was eight months into leading a major agency change, and he was frustrated. After a good deal of initial excitement, things had bogged down.

"I don't get it," he confessed to his deputy. "I mean, we've really done this by the book. We have a vision statement; we got our senior management team to craft a strategy and roadmap for the initiative. We've involved external stakeholders; we're sending regular communications to the workforce weekly; we've got metrics in place showing people when they make progress -- we even have a strong group of 'disciples' to help sell the change to the doubters. I've checked the literature, talked with colleagues; it seems like we've touched every base. So why are things going so slowly? Why is there so much resistance?"

Bill's hardly alone. Many managers and leaders create the "architecture" of change, get off to a good start, then watch as things slow down and employees start pushing back. What Bill doesn't have, sadly, is insight on the human aspects of change. He's hardly alone. Dealing poorly (or not at all) with the human element is usually where change initiatives go south. A number of studies on organizational change bear this out. What do we need to know about human beings to improve our ability to lead change?

I'm impressed with the insights on this issue offered by psychologists David Waters and Edith Lawrence. In their book Competence, Courage and Change: An Approach to Family Therapy (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993), they suggest two fundamental human needs: "mastery" and "belonging." One is an individual need, the other a social need. Their clinical experience with individuals, couples and families tells them that most people need to feel a sense of competence or mastery in some part of their lives -- we need to be good at something, and be recognized for that competence. And we need to be part of something larger than ourselves, to belong to some group/organization that we believe in, that fits our values.

When a change is announced, it raises questions surrounding these two primary needs:

Some Mastery Questions During Change:

· Will I have the skills to succeed in the new order, or will I feel incompetent?

· Will I need new tools and training?

· What will my role be?

· Will I be obsolete?

· Will my current skills/role be redundant?

Some Belonging Questions During Change:

· Can I identify with the new way of operating?

· Will the new organization be consistent with my values and beliefs?

· Will others want my membership?

· Is the new approach consistent with the (real or implied) contract I signed up for originally?

· Do I think the new approach can succeed?

For change leaders, the implications are straightforward: Find ways to help people see how the new direction will be consistent with these two fundamental needs. If people worry that they won't feel competent in the new organization, or that they won't belong for some reason, they will naturally push back.

Those who push back, of course, are often labeled as "resistors." And the change-management field has a boatload of tools and techniques for dealing with resistors: Include them! Isolate them! Co-opt them! Keep your friends close and your enemies closer! Have informal leaders approach them! The word "resistor" creates a problem, however. It assumes the person opposes the change for unprofessional reasons; that very assumption probably increases the push-back.

If we look at those who worry about change through the lens of mastery/competence and belonging, we'll deal with the human side of change in a very different way. Rather than regret the "resistors," we'll see push-back as an important indicator that some fundamental needs aren't being met. We'll ask others (and ourselves): Have we failed to involve people in designing the change (the belonging need)? Have we asked people to make too many changes at once (the mastery need)? Have we explained, simply, the need for the change (belonging)? Have teams discussed how to phase in the change so that training can be done on a just-in-time basis (mastery)? In other words, we'll harness the power of these basic human needs. In their book, Waters and Lawrence include a wise quote from Buckminster Fuller that captures the point beautifully: "Do not oppose forces, use them."

The human drive for competence is huge. The human desire to associate with something larger than ourselves is fundamental. Taken too far, either need can lead to terrible consequences (think of the huge egotists who can derail an organization or lead a country astray; think of the tribal violence enveloping large regions of the world).

Managers and leaders who understand and respect these two fundamental drives, however, will be far more effective in leading change. They'll harness these drives to support the new direction. And managers like Bill won't be crafting strategies to deal with resistance.

A management consultant, educator and author
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