When I think about change management, I am often reminded of this incident which happened a few years back. One of my close friends was moving back from London to Mumbai to start a new job. While he was excited for the change his 8-year-old daughter was not. She had painstakingly built her friend circle over the last 4 years, battling distance, language barriers, petty squabbles, and a lot more. She felt cheated and sad that all her effort would go down the drain. Her joy at being selected to perform at the school stage with her two-member rap group were in disarray.
It was a lot of tears and shouting going on. The oft tried ways of Lego bribes or trips to the gelateria were not helping. This was serious. I observed one of the conversations my friend was having with her daughter. I noticed that he was doing exactly what any smart professional does- paint a rosy picture.
His way of selling Mumbai to her was very similar to the way we all manage change management communication. His stories would start with how amazing Mumbai is as a city, how its always sunny and warm, how there is a sea beach there for them to enjoy, how they would be close to granny and grandpa and most importantly how her new school is amongst the best in India having produced greats like Mukesh Ambani. He was listing out every exciting part of the change process that excites the management.
He had the best of intentions and firmly believed that this change would excite her. Often as managers we conclude that the exciting future we see is shared by our team. The commitment we seek from others is dependent on how much they trust us. This trust is conditional upon the current context for the team members.
Unable to break the deadlock my friend finally went to his mother to seek advice. Having seen 30 more years of life, his mom had a sound advice. “your daughter fears the new situation and you are only making it worse by telling how things will change further. If you really want to address her fears talk to her about what will not change. Tell her that she will still go to school, she will have teachers who will help, she will study subjects she is familiar with, she will be speaking in a language she knows and most important, home will remain exactly the same.”
Needless to say, it worked like magic. This is the error we often make in change management. Leaders are so enamored by what will change that they forget that many of our teams are looking for some form of continuity or stability.
Focus on what remains the same
During change management employees frequently experience “cultural tensions” — competing priorities they don’t know how to balance. Culture threatens transformation because existing cultural norms don’t support new behavioral expectations. Employees struggle to make trade-offs when their existing judgment — based on existing cultural norms — no longer applies.
Organizational rituals (ways of doing work) usually change during any change management process.
Teams realize that the way they do work (policy and processes) will change with time. Knowing these general trends can help you anticipate which cultural tensions your employees are likely to face during a given change initiative. You can then plan ahead to clarify organizational priorities and ensure that the organization is sending consistent signals about what is changing
Simultaneously always communicate the behaviors and norms that will not change.
Successful behaviors which will still remain the same (e.g. customer focus) needs to be reiterated. The fact that change management process is not setting up people for failure and that support in various forms will be available during the transition will help reduce tension.
Communicating what will remain the same is as important as communication what will change.