Human elements in Change

Implementing change is one of the most important and most frustrating tasks of being a manager. Unflattering animal metaphors come to mind: people are pigheaded or bull headed or some things like ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. But it’s actually human nature to be resistant to change, and dealing with that can be very tricky. Because managers get so little instruction or training in managing the human elements of change, they are often caught off guard in their efforts to make things better.

Consider this true story. Our protagonist is a junior executive who had just moved companies. Because he was the ‘new kid’ there, the other execs conspired to assign him the administrative from hell. She had a reputation for being contrary and lazy, but no one wanted to go through the difficult procedure of getting fired. Our protagonist son learned firsthand how the assistant had earned her reputation. He decided to engineer things so she would quit voluntarily. He ramped up the quantity, complexity, and challenge of her work. But the more he gave her, the better she did and the more she seemed willing to take on. His attempt to make her quit failed, but he ended up with the most motivated and productive assistant in the place.

Help in understanding such stories and their implication is available from the field of managerial psychology, which connects knowledge from psychology, organizational behavior sociology, economics, and other fields to understand why people act the way they do at work. Studies reveal that the process of change is often counter intuitive. Many of the thorniest problems arise from a common source: Managers who want people to change see the situation very differently from the people who are being asked to change.

For example, managers typically focus on the upsides of change, whereas employees focus more on the risks. Will I be any good at doing these new things? Will the company still need me? Who will help and advise me? Who will listen to me? Research shows that worry about what will be lost weighs twice as heavily in people’s minds than anticipation of what might be gained.

Managers need to spend a good deal of time explaining and negotiating the new order with the people who are going to have to fit into it and emphasizing the opportunities that will be lost if changes aren’t made. And then is the possibility that employees are opposing change for good reason. Resistance to change from employees should sometimes be heeded and not overcome. That may be the most counter intuitive aspect of seeing change from another perspective.

What if you need to give an employee some negative, corrective feedback? Here too, differences in perspective can doom the interaction. The manager giving feedback tends to place the cause of the problem with the person – lack of necessary abilities, insufficient diligence and effort. The employee receiving feedback tends to place the cause of the problem with the situation – unreasonable task, lack of resources and cooperation, a run of bad luck. The truth is usually some combination of the two. Rather than but heads over interpretation, both parties should hear each other out and then take cooperative problem solving approach. The message from the manager should be that the employee is capable of solving the existing problems and meeting high performance standards, and that, with appropriate support, success is anticipated.

Sometimes managers think that closer supervision and lower standards will help subordinates see how to improve and will make them less anxious about messing up. But the opposite will be true if employees infer that supervisors don’t trust them and have low expectations of their abilities. Expectations, positive or negative, have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. In the 1980s, Toyota management turned a troubled, failing General Motors automotive plant into the most efficient plant in the GM system by giving employees more responsibility for quality control and more knowledge and authority to initiate changes in procedures. Employees felt trusted and competent, and they rose to the occasion.

The junior executive of our story accidentally made the same discovery with the administrative assistant from hell. By giving her more work and more challenging work, he inadvertently communicated to her that her talents are underutilized and that she is worthy of more responsibility. Just imagine how that can improve a person’s outlook and motivate her to prove the boss is right.