Why Is UK Management Seemingly Useless At Managing Change?

Why it is that UK management is seemingly useless at managing change effectively? Despite the increasing amount, speed and nature of change recent research suggests that leaders and managers are a primary cause of stress, conflict and harassment at work. With as many as a third of employees reporting that they are often kept in the dark and not consulted when major change occurs in their companies, is this ‘uselessness’ endemic in UK management or are workforces victims of lack of knowledge and skills?

It’s estimated that large firms undergo a major change approximately once every three years and smaller firms are changing almost constantly. With over 75% of change programmes failing fully meet objectives, the implication is that businesses spend a large chunk of their time and money failing to get the results they want. Companies are littered with a history of poorly executed, half-finished change initiatives.

Recent reports by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Roffey Park Management Institute and others seem to add to the increasing body of evidence that many organisational change initiatives are failing due to lack of employee engagement and buy-in because bosses are not managing either the process or the communication effort effectively. Results: a growing perception that leaders and managers are uncommunicative, do not ‘walk-the-talk’, and haven’t got what it takes to manage the transition effectively.

So what’s needed?

Organisations need to take a closer look at several areas if they want to improve their change skills: choosing the team, project management, consulting and communicating.

Managing change requires different skills at different phases, and it is important to take into account the skills required when thinking about who manages the different stages of the change project. For a change programme to work it’s also worth asking: ‘Who exactly is going to execute this plan?’

Change management entails thoughtful planning and sensitive implementation, and above all, consultation with, and involvement of, the people affected by the changes. As soon as change is forced on people, problems arise. Change must be realistic, achievable and measurable. These aspects are especially relevant to managing change where it affects people at a personal level, like being re-structured and “downsized”.

Gain commitment, not acquiescence

Many leaders and managers try to ‘sell’ the change to people as a way of accelerating ‘agreement’ and implementation. Unfortunately, ‘selling’ change to people who aren’t fully committed to the programme is not a sustainable strategy for success, unless the aim is to rake jelly up hill with a fork. When employees listen to management and the ‘high-up’s selling them a change, people will appear to accede, but quietly either at best not support the change, or at worse will actively conspire against it.

Instead, change needs to be understood and managed in a way that people can cope effectively with it. Change can be unsettling, so managers logically need to be a settling influence. But helping individuals and teams to deal with the psychological reactions to change or transition is often the hardest part of managing change. And here is the rub. The best strategy, the best laid plans, the best implementation can all go awry as soon as people are involved.

Leaders and managers need to check that people affected by the change agree with, or at least understand, the need for change, and have a chance to decide how the change will be managed, and to be involved in the planning and implementation of the change. Face-to-face communications to handle sensitive aspects of organisational change management is the best course.

These principles should be applied also to very tough change like making people redundant, closures and integrating merged or acquired organisations. Bad news needs even more careful management than routine change. Hiding behind memos and middle managers will make matters worse. Consulting with people, and helping them to understand does not weaken position – it strengthens it. Leaders who fail to consult and involve their people in managing bad news are perceived as weak and lacking in integrity. Treat people with humanity and respect and they will reciprocate.

Change management principles

The approaches outlined above are what I call GOBO (Glimpses Of the Blindingly Obvious). But as we know, what might look like common sense isn’t always common practice. We need some guiding principles:

1. Continually involve and agree support from people at all levels.

2. Understand where the organisation is at the moment.

3. Understand where it needs to be, when, why, and what the measures will be for having got there.

4. Plan development in appropriate achievable measurable stages.

5. Communicate, involve, enable and facilitate involvement from people, as early and openly and as fully as is possible.

John Kotter’s 8 Steps

Harvard Professor, John Kotter, offers some helpful thoughts about managing change and transition. Kotter’s eight step change model can be summarised as:

Establish a sense of urgency – inspire people to move, make objectives real and relevant.
Form the guiding team – get the right people in place with the right emotional commitment, and the right mix of skills and levels.

Create a vision – get the team to establish a simple vision and strategy, focus on emotional and creative aspects necessary to drive service and efficiency.

Communicate for buy-in – Involve as many people as possible, communicate the essentials, simply, and to appeal and respond to people’s needs. De-clutter communications – make technology work for you rather than against.

Empower others to act – Remove obstacles, enable constructive feedback and lots of support from leaders – reward and recognise progress and achievements.

Plan & create short-term wins – Set aims that are easy to achieve – in bite-size chunks.

Manageable numbers of initiatives. Finish current stages before starting new ones.

Consolidate and sustain the effort – Foster and encourage determination and persistence – ongoing change – encourage ongoing progress reporting – highlight achieved and future milestones.
Institutionalise the change – Reinforce the value of successful change via recruitment, promotion, and new change leaders. Weave change into culture.

Where to start

These eight steps to managing change and transforming the organisation are tried and tested, but before launching into organisational change, key questions need to be asked:

o What do we want to achieve with this change, why?

o How will we know that the change has been achieved?

o Who is affected by this change, and how will they react to it?

o How much of this change can we achieve ourselves, and what parts of the change do we need help with?

o Do we have the skills to cope?

So often, managers tend to focus on the end rather than the means when approaching change. But this will only lead to failure. Leaders and managers need to look at the whole process when approaching change, from the communication and development of change to the end result. Only by having total clarity about what needs to be achieved, gaining the full and participating commitment of those involved, and being brutally honest about the prevailing skill level to successfully manage change can UK management get out of this stereotypical picture of being seemingly useless in the eyes of their people. With a bit of consideration and skillful practice managers can avoid becoming the primary cause of stress, conflict and harassment at work during times of change.

That reminds me; I must go and announce our re-structure.