Change in business is almost always a good thing, but often poor management means that the workforce becomes disengaged and the change process painful. In the worst cases, this results in irreparable damage being done.
It doesn't need to be this way. Follow these nine steps and empower yourself to successfully lead your people through major organizational change.
Understand the change
Make sure you understand exactly what is changing and how it affects your people. Speak to whomever you need to in order to ascertain this properly. You need to know what the impact is on your people and the jobs they do. Educating yourself will mean you're better equipped to communicate with your staff. It will give them confidence that you are the right person to lead them into the unknown. It will also relieve their anxieties, as they will feel able to put their trust in you to keep them informed and look after their individual and collective interests.
Regular and varied communication is essential in managing change. Initial briefings to employees should be face to face, with adequate time set aside to prepare beforehand.
They should be delivered by an appropriately senior manager who also has good presentation skills and a natural delivery style. The audience needs to be engaged, not alienated. Going forward, set up a recognized channel that will control the flow of information on daily developments.
This could be an online micro-site or a newsletter or bulletin. Make sure the tone and language is upbeat and that the positive messages the business wants to promote about the change are a recurring theme. You should consult with your marketing team for advice on how to do this effectively.
Consult with your people
Consult staff on their views and provide clear channels for those opinions to be received. Consider providing an email address to receive questions, or if you have set up a micro-site, set up a message board that allows for questions and answers to be posted online.
It is equally important to ensure you are responding swiftly to those questions. It's a good idea to set up and publish an FAQ list, which will prevent having to answer the same question multiple times. This will also help inform the content of future communications through understanding the hot topics.
Ultimately, the change may be mandatory and not open to amendment, but even if this were true, communication must still be a two-way street. If you don't demonstrate an active interest in employees' views, then you risk an outright mutiny.
Use your champions
Identify the characters in your team that are positive about the change, and pick out one or two who are popular or hold sway over their teammates. These are your wingmen, and it's important you tap into that resource early. Get them on side and meet with them regularly. Explain the important role they have to play in helping others to stay upbeat.
As well as being a supportive and positive voice amongst the people, they are also your eyes and ears, in a position of trust with colleagues. This means they will pick up on potential concerns or flashpoints early, and be able to bring these to your attention in confidence.
During any staff briefings, your champions will play a pivotal role in supporting managers; positive voices from the populace are invaluable.
Control the dissenters
The negative voices in your team are often the loudest and most influential. You will have a number of people in your team who are confused or undecided about how they feel about the change. They are susceptible to being convinced by the detractors in your team, who will attempt to rally them to their cause. If all those sitting on the fence jump off on the wrong side, your life will get difficult. Don't let that happen.
Target those dissenting staff members and speak to them individually. Show empathy and understanding for their concerns but explain the impact on their colleagues of their open expressions of negativity. Try to get them involved in meetings, taking an active role in being a critical but objective voice. But ultimately, if their views are extreme and it's clear they intend to persist being a disruptive influence, then take a hard line. Tell them their behavior is not acceptable and could lead to disciplinary action on grounds of their conduct.
Engage with unions
If your business recognizes one or more unions, make sure you engage fully with them during the whole process of change. This relationship needs to be managed very carefully and you should consult with senior HR management for advice and support.
Excluding union representatives from meetings or staff briefings, whether intentionally or otherwise, is not wise. It is unavoidable that there will be points of contention between senior management and unions, but maintaining an open and amicable dialogue is essential.
Maintain the business
Don't let your team lose focus on their day-to-day responsibilities and the running of the business. It's inevitable that there will be some impact on productivity during major change, but there is a limit to this, and staff need to be reminded that their normal roles and responsibilities still remain. Plan briefings and communications to minimize the impact on your resources, and by extension, your customers.
Toe the line
A lack of professionalism and objectivity of managers can spell disaster. Even if you feel that the business change is fundamentally wrong, or have concerns with the judgment of your seniors, you must not reveal this. You need to maintain the party line and express the changes in positive, objective terms.
Discuss your concerns with others you trust in the business if you need a sounding board, but be very careful who you confide in. Ideally, use confidential, independent channels, such as an employee assistance helpline, if your business provides one.
Manage outside influences
The change may attract outside attention from local or national press, or pressure groups. This might happen if your organization is particularly large, in the public sector, or in a regulated or contentious industry. In these cases, you also need to be aware of the effect of these outside agencies' activities may have on your employees. You can rarely exercise much control over external media, but you can make sure your finger is on the pulse. This will allow you to react quickly if an external event occurs that's likely to cause disruption or concern.
Change doesn't have to be stressful and unpredictable, providing you plan ahead and stay in control. The key to success is keeping your employees bought in to the objectives, and engaged with the mechanics of the change. Following these nine steps will ensure you do that, and allow you to successfully lead people, unscathed, through even the most major organizational change.