Change Happens One Person At a Time

Hanlon’s Paradox states that the stress caused by change reduces our ability to cope with change. At the very moment we need to be open to new ideas and learn new ways of doing things, the expectation of having to change surfaces fears and doubts that lowers our self-esteem and prevents us from adapting.

Most businesses are either unaware of or forget about Hanlon’s Paradox when undergoing a major organizational transformation effort — and this is why three-quarters of transformation initiatives are unsuccessful. The most well-thought through strategies fail because changing a business means helping each person make the needed changes, one individual at a time.

For large global organizations this can seem like an impossible task, so too many fall back on carefully scripted town-hall presentations and/or mass emails to communicate the change and hope for the best. Unfortunately, no matter how good this content is, everyone is still left feeling the same stress and asking the same question: “What does this mean for me?”

Personalize change

In my experience leading companies through successful transformations, the key to this success was ensuring every single person in the organization understood why a change is necessary and how it impacts their role and how they perform their work.

Because most people are inherently resistant to change, it takes time for them to gain the necessary confidence and courage to look further ahead and move outside their comfort zone. Leaders need to have empathy for their people in the face of transformational or even everyday change, and commit to helping each one build resiliency and make the needed changes.

Senior leaders need to directly engage with all levels of the organization and not just presume messages will cascade smoothly down the hierarchy. While it is not reasonable to expect CEOs to have one-on-one sessions with every employee, they should plan to take part in small group discussions, especially with the top performers at every level. Giving everyone a chance to ask questions and voice concerns in a more intimate, personalized way will help people relate better to the transformation and boost their ability to adapt.

Stop, start, continue questions

One simple structure for coaching and performance development in times of transformation is the Stop/Start/Continue conversation. It comprises three simple questions that both the manager and team member answer:

  1. What activities/behaviors should I Stop doing?
  2. What activities/behaviors should I Start doing?
  3. What activities/behaviors should I Continue doing?

It is especially important for senior leaders to have regular Stop/Start/Continue conversations with the people managers who report to them. Every manager plays an outsized role in influencing the needed change, and if they remain too focused on deliverables and not on their people it creates a disconnect.

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Used honestly and regularly, Stop/Start/Continue is a powerful tool for both large transformations and day to day development. We use it at my current organization, Vertiv, as part of a continuous performance process for all of our 18,000 employees based in 25 locations worldwide. We use technology to transparently set and align our quarterly OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and to capture the “Stop/Start/Continue” conversations at each quarter end. Technology is useful because it provides needed transparency to keep everyone aligned and it prompts managers to have these regular discussions.

Change is everyday

Because the only constant is change, leaders and managers can also use Stop/Start/Continue questions for the continuous, forward focused employee development conversations that need to be part of the everyday flow of work.

While managers may have weekly one-on-one meetings with each of their direct reports, these conversations are typically very tactical and focused on the specific tasks in motion. Or organizations rely only on infrequent, backward looking performance reviews which aren’t focused on developing the skills they need for continued success. The more everyday form of transformation demands frequent bigger picture discussions around goals, skills and career development – conversations that will spark change and keep individuals, teams and the entire organization moving forward.

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Andrew Cole is Vertiv's chief organizational development and human resources officer.

Andrew has been developing dynamic, high growth global leaders and teams in  various companies and cultures. In the last 20 years, he had led organizational development programs, corporate talent strategy, leadership development and change management for teams involving up to 8,000 employees.

He was the Chief Human Resources and Organizational Development Officer at Lumeris of the Population Health Services Organization where his role includes aligning the human resources functions by attracting and retaining top talent, facilitating team transitions and fostering individual employee development to continue delivering key business objectives.

He was the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Goldstein Group Management, A123 Systems and Schneider Electric. He held a global position in the Vegetable Seed division of Monsanto. He has co-written a book entitled, "Executing Your Business Transformation."

He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Rel Studies and HR, and a Master's Degree in Management at Regis University.