Not Much Has Changed About Change

With all the attention communicators give social media these days, some of our long-time antagonists get pushed to the side. Measurement? No time for it. Good grammar and writing skills? Out the door. Strategic planning? Yeah, well, never did that anyway.

One issue seems to have reared its ugly head again, though. It’s big, it’s bad and it’s back with a vengeance. It’s change and it’s coming to an organization near you.

Just in the last week, I attended two professional development programs about change, both with emphases on communication. I’ve also seen an increase in articles, blog posts and even Tweets about it. Seems reasonable, since the only constant is change — at least that’s what every business leader and their mother says when forced to talk to employees about it.

There’s just one problem. There’s nothing new about change, which seems a bit ironic. Executives act like they’re the first to ever lead a business through change. HR consultants like to pretend they have new, foolproof “systems” for navigating it. Employees feel as if it’s never happened to anyone but them. But let’s face it: change hasn’t changed.

There are, however, some truisms that bear repeating since we humans have remarkably short memories about how to manage change. Here are some of them I’ve heard in the last few weeks, some of them wrapped in new terminology:

  • Change sucks. People hate it. We are creatures of habit. Even those of us who profess to live adventurously like certain things to remain the same. When was the last time you changed brands of toilet paper or toothpaste? We resist change because when it comes right down to it, we need a certain amount of stability and predictability in our lives.
  • We respond emotionally to change. Author/columnist Dan Heath, speaking to our local chapter of the American Marketing Association, said there’s a pattern people follow when dealing with change. We see it. We feel it. Then we might change. He wisely pointed out that many business leaders focus on the seeing and not so much the feeling part. People might see and understand the logical reasons why change must happen, but unless we emotionally invest ourselves in it, we’re unlikely to change.
  • Telling stories is a great way to get people to feel change. My friend and fellow blogger Susan Cellura Williams led me to this excellent Harvard Business blog by Peter Bregman in which he advocates for storytelling as a change agent. The gist of the idea is that organizations get stuck in their ways because the stories they tell each other — or, perhaps, that management tells them — reinforce the current culture. Changing a culture requires telling new stories, recognizing people when they do things differently, giving people a clear vision of where you want to go and helping them feel it. The implications for communicators is huge.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight. At a PRSA panel discussion on change, the vice president of public affairs for a large organization talked about a major change that took five years to complete. It’s easy to get impatient, especially leading people who are resistant. We live in a world of 24-hour news, instant communication and immediate gratification. Don’t expect organizations, especially large ones, to change that quickly. Have a plan, allow for some flexibility and stay on course. Keep talking about it and keep that vision out in front of people. Help them see what it will feel like when things change.
  • When people learn how to change, those skills are transferable. At the same PRSA panel talk, the leader of a large government organization told how her employees sprang into action to deal with a crisis efficiently and with minimal disruption to business. Their experience in dealing with changes to the organization prepared them for the crisis.
  • People don’t have to like change in order to deal with it. I’ve seen business leaders make two big mistakes of opposite extremes: forcing change to happen with the attitude that people “will just have to get over it” or trying to make sure everybody likes the changes taking place. Sometimes people will hate change, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be willing to go along with it. In the early ’90s I worked in a manufacturing facility that changed from a five-day to a seven-day work week. Management did a great job of explaining why the change was necessary and they engaged employees in dialogues about it. A survey after the dialogue sessions showed that while only 33% were satisfied with the change from a personal standpoint, 53% were satisfied with it from a business standpoint. People can understand and make changes, even those they dislike, if you keep the communication lines open.

Let’s hear from you. What other truisms about change have you observed? Don’t worry if they’re not groundbreaking. Sometimes the greatest learning comes from timeless wisdom.

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