Effective Change Management – A Business Psychologist’s View

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of working with the irrepressible Ryan Ng, a Business Psychologist, who has joined the Evolved Group team to help us develop our text analytics models for Employee Engagement, Culture and Organisational Climate.

In between scouring Employee Engagement models and data, we often find ourselves in deep philosophical debate and recently, the subject of Change Management came up.

In today’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, effective change management is arguably more important than ever.  And an organisation’s ability to balance the basic mechanics of project management whilst properly involving and engaging its people throughout can mean the difference between success and failure.
It’s always good to hear from a specialist, so I took the opportunity to throw some questions Ryan’s way.  As always, I found Ryan’s thoughts on the matter fascinating so decided to share our back and forth more broadly.

For anyone experiencing organisational change – or thinking about embarking on a programme of change, this might be of interest…

We’ve spoken about this a little bit before – in much of the employee engagement data I’ve seen, the subject of Change Management seems to be a thorny one. Do you think this is reflective of the generally uncertain times we live in or a capability gap in some organisations’ ability to help people navigate change effectively? Or something else entirely?

Your question has succinctly captured the two issues that Change Management seeks to address: (1) how is our environment changing; and (2) how are we responding?

It is interesting to note how fundamental these questions are to us, because we’ve had to answer both for as long as we have been around. Human beings have always faced uncertainty in our environments but have managed to effectively adapt to ever-changing circumstances and survive, even thrive.

We’ve never been able to escape change, but it’s clear what truly matters: those who respond to change more effectively go on to be more successful in the long-term than those who don’t. The same applies to organisations, where as a cohesive whole, people have to navigate change together to move towards the same vision.

So, the fact we exist in uncertain times will always be a given, and much less important than how our people respond to and navigate change. Of course, we do still need to acknowledge that in a technology-enabled modern world, market environments are now changing more rapidly than before, but remember that our brains are neuroplastic and fundamentally wired to adapt to change – more so with the right support.

The onus is thus not on the uncertain times, but on the organisation, the leaders and their people, to identify the necessary response to change and effectively navigate forwards. To quote Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.

It seems to me that good change management should keep the people who stand to be impacted by the change at the front and centre throughout. A not-so-good approach could be to focus mostly on the project side of things – milestones, delivery dates, gantt charts – which perhaps puts the people element to the side.
Do you think that sometimes businesses focus on the more obvious and tangible side of things as it’s more “comfortable” than the apparently esoteric?  And that by consciously/ unconsciously side-lining the human element, a change project is essentially doomed from the outset?

How did you come to the conclusion around good change management and keeping the people at the front and centre? We certainly could do more with regards to that, and it would make the jobs of change managers and organisational leaders easier if they do so.

I’ve observed employees complaining about their new open plan offices, whilst their leaders had made the change with the strategic intent that innovation will start happening. The reality is that those employees will keep working, because they are good employees, but you just don’t see innovation happening. It’s a waste of money, time, and resources, with a hit to employee engagement and retention – for no return.

On the other hand, take an innovative team, place them in a more structured environment, and they’ll still keep trying to innovate. Successful change is really about the people, equally and often more so, than it is about the strategy or project.

What makes a good approach to change is very much contextual. It’s about knowing when to focus more on the project side of things, and when to focus more on the people side of things. Equally integral to successful change is a solid vision, effective strategy, project planning and resources allocation. People do need that structure and direction.

The issue, as you pointed out, is that the project will fall apart unless it’s driven by the people. The people element can often be seen as fluff, but it really isn’t esoteric when we think about it. We have all been affected by change, so all of us know what it’s like. My sense is, the real issue isn’t that we’ve ignored the human elements, perhaps more that we’ve been paying lip service to a “people-focus” and checking it off like a to-do list.

For example, it’s common to see the use of consolatory strategies and band-aid interventions (i.e. goodie bags, vouchers and satisfaction surveys) only during, or after, transition. That’s like someone asking ‘R U Ok?’ after telling you at the last minute about a project that you suddenly have to get, when they could have kept you in the loop from the beginning.

Firstly, I must admit my thoughts are driven entirely by observation, rather than rigorous academic study – but it seems they’re not too wide of the mark, which is good. Secondly, you triggered my mind with your comments about innovation and made me think of a fabulous quote I once read: “Want to increase innovation? Lower the cost of failure”.
In my experience at least, having the mental, emotional and even physical bandwidth to focus on innovation – to allow your mind to explore, forge new connections – is absolutely key. Fear can kill creativity and limit our ability to explore new possibilities.
It strikes me that this could also apply to facing change. If people do so from a place of fear, or excess pressure or a feeling of unpreparedness, surely their levels of resilience will suffer as a result.  Do you think this makes sense or am I just reaching?

Reflecting on our interactions, it seems to me that your thoughts are driven by both astute real-world observation as well as an interest in and ability to understand the people elements, e.g. empathy and perspective taking. Those competencies are core to business psychologists, who also draw from collective evidence to apply best practice. Good science never strays far from real world observation, and in fact is driven by it.

Interesting thought on the link between fear and change. Fear is certainly one of the most common reasons at the heart of why people resist change, even though they might have good reasons for doing so. That quote on innovation is an excellent one, and really speaks to the often-overlooked fact that creativity and improvement only thrives when “it’s ok to make mistakes”.

Generally, for people to be at their best in the workplace, we need a climate of psychological safety (rather than fear) where individuals feel like they can speak up, put themselves out there, and will be supported rather than punished, if they fail. That is also true for change.

I agree with you on having the ‘bandwidth’ to focus on innovation is absolutely key – but for us. Considering that both of us highly value Self-direction and Novelty, innovation would be our priority, because those values are core to
a culture oriented toward ideas, exploration, learning, creating, new experiences.
For others with Security and Order values, their mental, emotional and physical bandwidth will be focused on conservation, efficiency, and process control – for them, refining, structuring, and cutting waste is absolutely key.

That’s not to say at all that a culture of conservation cannot change, explore or forge new connections: they might very well be excellent at adapting when needed, but exploring new possibilities just isn’t a focus for them unless they can see a good reason to do so and it’s not too misaligned with their purpose. So, on top of addressing fear, the change also has to be something that people will identify with.

You gave a great example before about the organisation missing the mark with its move to open-plan offices. A good cautionary tale for anyone trying to elicit a cultural shift in their business?

Organisations need to understand whether they are trying to change their culture (the stable shared beliefs, values and assumptions of people); or climate, which is atmosphere and environment factors like safety, trust, and relations.

If organisations try to address culture, when the issue is one of climate, then they may continue to waste resources on inappropriate solutions. That example I mentioned showed how an organisation which already had a culture of innovation, but poor communications and sudden imposed change, led to a climate of doubt, fear and toxic relations.

On the functional level, people are still oriented towards learning and creating but are now also spending more mental energy avoiding mistakes rather than innovating, because they think this change is about making it easier to keep an eye on them. Doesn’t matter that the new environment will be all new, shiny and meant to boost innovation – it’s having the opposite effect.

An issue that might have been avoided if those driving the change had spent more time considering the opinion of those who stood to be affected by it?

People on the ground are involved in their work every day and thus see things that top management misses with a bird’s eye view. So an employee might argue against a change because they identified a major obstacle that others haven’t yet, but to others they may just be considered to be a Detractor or naysayer.
The thing is, detractor voices can often be a crucial resource that helps organisations remove barriers to change and iron out long-running unaddressed issues. That’s why the three major strategies for overcoming resistance to change are empathy, communication, and participation.

You provide people with empathy and support, communicate regularly, and involve them directly in planning and implementing the change – essentially, keeping them front and centre.

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