HR Roundtable: How to Make Change Sustainable

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Jul 21, 2014

As the summer heat started to take hold, the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati gathered to take on the ever elusive topic of “How to Make Change Sustainable.”

Change, and change agent, have become terms that are thrown around in HR to the point of being ineffective catchphrases. The Roundtable was going to take a different approach to “change” to see if they could come up with ideas that put some substance to this topic which could be translated into action within companies.

So, the small groups started with the following questions:

  1. What obstacles exist in organizations that deter/destroy change?
  2. What keeps employees from embracing change?
  3. How can change be sustainable in organizations?

The conversations within the small groups were more focused and intense than usual. In fact, it was a challenge to have them break up to share to the forum as a whole. When they did break out, this is what they had to share.

What obstacles exist that deter/destroy change?

  • HR itself — Why not start out swinging? This answer jumped out so quickly it was scary. The overwhelming sentiment was that HR spends more of its time trying to keep things at a status quo level, and they aren’t seen as a group that supports change. Also, when changes have come from HR they are more rules related. So, the change may be needed, but the focus seems to be more constrictive. (We’ll address this later!)
  • People — People don’t like change. When you hear someone exclaim that they LOVE change, it can quickly be shown that this isn’t the case. People like things that are structured and familiar. This doesn’t mean that people don’t constantly change, just that they aren’t comfortable with change that they view as significant. The challenge with that becomes evident when one change may seem small to someone and gigantic to others.
  • Leadership — Some leaders in organizations feel they are tasked to be “change agents” which is interpreted by others as someone who is disruptive – not effective. Leaders in organizations can also squelch change in companies even when it’s evident that changes are needed because their role has the authority to act.
  • This is the way we’ve ALWAYS done things — People never think poorly about the past. They relish all the good things they enjoyed in the past, and they formulate memories and ideas that block out failures, bad decisions and actions. The truth is that things are NEVER done the same way in the present or in the past. This stance is just a security mechanism to resist whatever the new effort is assumed to be. Also, taking this position allows our minds to think only negative results will come from any impending new change.
  • Past failures — People always say that we learn from their failures, and that is true more often than not. However, few companies practice how to gracefully react when people fail. So, when failure may be imminent, or likely, people will become conservative in their approaches because they don’t want to get whacked for another failure.
  • Poor communication — Poor communication can undermine, cripple and ruin change even though the new movement had great possibility to move the company forward. If people feel that they weren’t included, or considered, they will resist the change no matter how beneficial it is.
  • Technology — There were answers regarding not having enough technology for change as well having too much technology getting in the way. Since technology is an ever-evolving fact of our lives, it is likely to be incorporated with change. The challenge is leveraging it to be a tool vs. a hindrance.
  • WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) — If people don’t feel that change will benefit them in some way, they’ll resist it. Often organizational change occurs with little, or no, context. Employees can dismiss changes almost instantly if they don’t understand how it affects them.

What keeps employees from embracing change?

  • Fear — Unfortunately, most people are wired negatively. There is an almost immediate assumption that any type of change will have a poor outcome that will only result in more difficult work, worse working conditions, or disaster. You can’t reason with this fear because people don’t share their fears. They just assume the worst is bound to happen. It rarely does, but that doesn’t dampen the factor of fear.
  • Credibility and Trust — Another barrier to embracing change is that people quantify the people initiating, or communicating, the change. If there is a lack of credibility or trust in that person(s), then change hits a brick wall. We have taught people that credibility and trust must be earned. However, this is a difficult posture to assume because someone has to be the first to give trust and credibility. If everyone has to earn these two characteristics and no one is a giver, then neither will ever be established!
  • Lack of transparency — This is like the giant curtain in The Wizard of Oz. People aren’t sure what’s behind the “curtain” of change, so they make up things in their minds to fill in any gray areas. This can be better defined as the lack of context. It’s like when people expect employees to “shut up and do what I say.” That’s never been effective and it never will be.
  • Lack of engagement — Engagement is the rallying cry of every workplace on the planet. There are countless blogs, books and conference sessions on the topic. The reality of engagement is that if employees aren’t connected within their organization, engagement can’t occur. HR would be better served if it looked at connecting employees to their roles and departments instead of trying to create some trending program filled with colorful engagement initiatives.
  • Outcomes of proposed changes — Rarely do employees learn about the results that are the goal of changes that are introduced in organizations. The approach is usually focused on the system and not how it affects people. There is a great opportunity in sharing what potential outcomes are the goals. It allows people to rally around them and add their effort and input.

How can change be sustainable in organizations?

  • Strong, consistent leadership — When there is a defined person who is the champion of a change, people can go to them for clarity on items, as well as give them feedback throughout all aspects of the change. This is also a way to develop your staff by being intentional in having them step up to lead change initiatives.
  • Measure successes (and failures) — It is the hope that all change will lead to phenomenal results and wild success. When that doesn’t occur, companies tend to look to place blame and condemn people for failures. A different, and healthier, approach is to measure what happens because of the change – either success or failure. Giving people the permission to fail as well as the expectation to succeed will remove unneeded stress. Try it!
  • Allow creativity — People have good ideas at all levels of an organization. Change doesn’t have to come only from the most senior level of organizations. Make a culture and environment that encourages creativity to be included on a regular basis instead of only when responding to large challenges. If you do this, you’ll be surprised at how many people want to share their thoughts and ideas to move the company forward!
  • Eliminate “the same page” — When people do a barometer check to see if everyone is “on the same page,” they aren’t seeking clarity — they’re seeking conformity. You should see if everyone involved is moving in relatively the same direction, but making sure there’s a forced “buy-in” is honestly inhibiting people. You need to come up with a forum to openly discuss, dissect and scrub changes. When people have input, they’ll give their consent. If you reach consensus on a regular basis you have more “same pagers” than if you demand it.
  • Meet people emotionally first — This isn’t a new idea, but it isn’t practiced. We want people to act rationally and not emotionally because we’re uncomfortable when people get emotional. Steve shared the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath where they show that if you don’t meet the emotional reality of people, then the rational piece of why a change will work will never take hold.

HR needs to be more comfortable in their own skin and get emotional themselves. We don’t need robots in the workplace. We need humans in all their emotional rawness!

The Roundtable came to a close and people felt renewed as they went out to face the changes that were sure to come even within that day. Hope you can join us at future HR Roundtables in Cincinnati so you can help all of us change HR for the better!

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