In today’s business landscape, organizational change is a constant affair. Between mergers, acquisitions and leadership changes, the days of a stagnant work environment are gone, says John T. Mooney, principal of Consultive Source, a human resources firm in Dallas.
“There are just a billion changes that have the potential to create a tremendous amount of turmoil, unrest and insecurity in employees, so we look at change management at many levels of the organization,” Mooney says.
The economy has especially altered the way employers look at change management, but this isn’t necessarily a positive transformation, says Jay Scherer, managing partner of BPI Group, an HR firm in Chicago. In the past, an employer would typically use a “sell” approach to change management, meaning it would help employees connect to the new future and understand how the company is evolving. Instead, employers are now simply announcing what changes are taking place with little regard to helping employees cope with the new environment.
“Because companies are leaner and meaner, it seems, to me, like there’s less attention focused on classic change management techniques,” Scherer says. “If you don’t like it, you can leave, but you won’t leave because where will you go? Change management managed poorly during difficult times then becomes a bad habit, and that can cause problems when the economy starts to recover because now the employer needs to figure out how to keep that talent.”
Layoffs, in particular, are a common change many organizations are experiencing, given the tough economic climate, and employers need to be ready to help employees through that process, Mooney adds. However, change management stemming from layoffs must be handled slightly different because of their emotional nature.
“Being laid off is one of the most traumatic events with significant emotional triggers,” Mooney says. “You have to try to manage that as much as possible upfront to minimize unexpected behaviors and emotions. You want to be clear about the perceptions and try to understand what’s going on in their minds. If you know you’re going down that path because of changes in the business, you want to openly communicate all the facts you potentially can.”
To manage this upfront, an employer can, of course, use various forms of written communication, but, to really deliver the message, employers should hold small-group discussions that are led by department or team managers. The messaging should be consistent across all groups, and this gives employees a chance to address their thoughts in an intimate setting.
“There are a number of ways that an organization can communicate in general, but communicating change requires a highly orchestrated effort, and that requires strategic communication. These discussions should speak to the facts of what’s going on and a timeline as it soon as it can be made public.”
HR departments also must collaborate with all levels of the organization during the change management process, Mooney says. With sweeping change, all departments can expect to be affected, and engagement from every level is necessary for effective communication.
“It’s critical to be cross functional in every aspect,” Mooney says. “Communication is No. 1, and you can’t do that in a silo. It’s important to collaborate with other departments and people, so the communication is clear and transparent, open and honest. Employees need accurate and timely information.”
Working with top-level management is especially important, Scherer says. These types of positions have high visibility, and seeing those top people embrace the changes provides employees with a sense of credibility.
“Key people need to be good role models in the organization, but when that doesn’t happen and your leaders aren’t driving the change and are not fully on board, that’s a barrier,” Scherer says.
Ultimately, nearly all effective change management techniques come down to communication. Whether the change management approached is based on small-group discussions or top-level directives, communication is a driving force in helping employees get through change management.