Change is Scary, Change Enablement Isn’t
Hallowe’en is upon us. It is a time of year to celebrate all scary things: monsters, goblins, ghouls. But for some of us in the change management, communications, and learning field we see and experience the scariest of things on a daily or project basis. Sometimes the scary monster is that project sponsor who is aggressive and pushy but essentially does very little to drive the project forward. Or those goblins in the form of the extended project team – they really mean no harm, but they can’t help but be a little malicious toward people or the project. And of course, there are the ghouls – those resisters who revel in revolting.
While these archetypes are not always present during a project or other change initiatives, we also need to keep a vigilant eye open for them. Like all things that go bump in the night, these characters can be summoned without warning. What can we do to be watchful, without being paranoid? How do we move forward when they do appear?
The Scary Monster
The scary monster can be anyone, but often the scariest is the one who is supposed to lead and drive the change. But for whatever reason, instead of being a critically minded thinker who supports the change by removing roadblocks and providing a calm and positive presence that people can gather strength from, they are a source of fear, chaos, or even worse, indifference.
I am sure we have all experienced this monster. The executive who has been charged with sponsoring something she doesn’t believe in or care about. Or the senior leader who thinks he doesn’t need to support his people through the change because employees will just do what they are told because it’s their job – no need to “coddle”.
When we come across this scary monster what are we to do? How do we help them change? Or in their absence/inability, how do we help the project and the people along the change journey without their sponsor or leader?
The first thing to remember is the executive and leadership team, just like all other employees, are also going through a change. We often put these super-high expectations on leadership because they are leaders. And while, yes, they do have the position they have because they are expected to endure and produce more than a middle manager or an individual contributor, they are still people who need to adjust and go through the same stages of change as everyone else.
Empathy is key when assisting these monsters. Like everyone else, they often need someone to listen and care. Ego and pride are often the source of energy for these monsters. In everyday lingo, ego means the extent to which one thinks highly of one's self. We all need a strong enough ego to deal with everything that needs to be accomplished to survive and we rely on our ego to provide a sense of identity.
The role of a leader or project sponsor is to enable change – to provide those going through change with the means, support, and direction and when required to, remove blocks. This often requires some level of letting go of ego. According to Cy Wakeman, the average employee spends 2.5 hours per day on drama in the workplace. In her book, No Ego, she points out that ego-driven behaviours are the #1 source of drama in workplaces today, and it’s costing organizations billions annually.
By tapping into the source (ego), monsters can change. It is always good to have a little monster in us when driving change, but acknowledging it and knowing its place will make leading and sponsoring change more rewarding and beneficial to the organization as a whole.
Like the scary monster, the goblin can be anyone, but often the goblin appears as a member of the extended project team – someone who has been tasked to provide subject matter expertise for their business unit but are not fully embedded into the project.
Subject matter experts or SMEs are individuals with deep knowledge of a particular job, process, topic, or function. They are often called upon to answer questions, provide input into the design or development of materials, or to communicate and transfer knowledge clearly to other people in an organization about their area of expertise.
SMEs are often asked to perform their SME duties as extra, on-the-side-of-their-desk work which ultimately ends up being a full-time job. So, it’s understandable that goblins can be a little malicious and mean towards people or the project.
The question I always ask myself (and the Project Manager, Project Sponsor(s), and HR), is what are we doing to enable these people, so they don’t become goblins? They too are going through a change but are also being asked to do their full-time job, while taking on near full-time project obligations. Have their fears about the change been acknowledged? Have they been provided the correct information and context? What training have they been provided? What about other incentives? How about back-filling their day-job role so they aren’t working from 6 AM to 2 AM every day for 6, 8, or 12 months? This requires more than empathy, it requires thought, planning, and compromise.
Ahh.. the ghouls – those resisters who revel in revolting. Okay, maybe revolt is harsh, or at least it is often not a showy, loud performance. But revolt can be a good word for resistance. Merriam Webster dictionary states that resistance is “an act or instance of opposing” – specifically a hostile or contrary action or condition. The American Psychological Association dictionary states that resistance is “generally, any action in opposition to, defying, or withstanding something or someone”. Sounds a little like revolt to me.
Tyler Davis, associate professor of psychological sciences at Texas Tech University says “some people feel their identity is related to [the thing they are resisting], that they most likely don’t disagree with the [logic or reasons for the change] but are making a cultural or political statement: [Basically] ‘I don’t want to and you can’t make me.’”.
A hot topic for everyone in the world right now is masks – and I don’t mean Hallowe’en masks!
Resistance is a big part of leading and supporting change, and you should never be surprised by it – resistance is normal. It is basic human nature of people to try and keep methods and customs constant, even when they are inefficient or ineffective.
Resistance is a word that is tossed about a lot during change initiatives. The question I like to ask is, “Is it resistance? Or are people simply "stuck" because they do not feel enabled or empowered?”
I also hear the buzz-phrase “engagement” a lot. But the reality is, people will not fully engage (despite best efforts) unless they feel responsible and accountable for their own change journey. Resistance often comes from a place of not taking accountability for one’s own outcomes or from a place of loss of identity.
So how can the onset or disruption of resistance be reduced? How do we keep the ghouls away? Proactively supporting resistance is about acting on foresight, instead of waiting for a problem to arise. So, when watching for resistance, do so by looking at where employees are in the change curve – signs of resistance or being stuck can happen at any stage:
Are employees informed and do they understand? Meaning, are they aware and do they fully understand why, what, when and even how?
Do they feel optimistic about this change? If not, why?
Have they learned what is required to go through the change? Learned new skills or desired behaviours?
How able are they? Have they had any training or other learning opportunities? Are they being supported and empowered?
Communicate the WIIFM (What’s In It for Me) or the What Does It Mean for Me.
These three characters (monsters, goblins, and ghouls) are always lurking, ready to feed on whatever they can to gain power. Often when a change is happening there are many people going through it who need support. We know that change happens one person at a time, but that doesn’t mean you have to actually speak with or coach each person individually – could you imagine?
When supporting an organization and their leaders and people through a change, I find applying a coaching mindset, by asking the right questions and providing the right focus and support structure can shift the balance of responsibility and accountability from the Change Manager (i.e. me or you) who is supporting the change to the individual(s), who are being impacted by the change.
Applying a coaching mindset doesn’t need to be time consuming or difficult. Instead, it’s about asking the right questions, to the right people, at the right time via the right medium!
If you are a change practitioner or change champion, you probably already do this, whether it’s intentionally or instinctually! But essentially, you want to open people’s awareness and discovery and you can do this through many different approaches:
Emails (targeted to individuals, small groups)
Social platforms (Yammer, Teams sites, etc.)
Broad or targeted communications (such as town halls, recurring agenda slot in a team meeting, videos, etc.).
Using a coaching mindset (like coaching), is about the other person – helping them produce their own awareness and solution. When enabling people through change you want to ask the types of questions that make them think and reflect. To learn more about applying a coaching mindset and tips for curbing resistance, take a look at our infographic on our website here.
Change is scary for most of us, most of the time. But change is inevitable and more, it is constant. There will always be change monsters to fear, but putting in the effort to enable people rather than managing them, can turn them into change champions.