The Critical Role of Managing Employees Through Change: Ignore their Needs at Your Peril
The women on the four-person team were frustrated. While they were fully engaged with the training- which was a version of the widely-popular DISC model- they had hit a wall.
“We have this guy…” one of women began.
As it turned out, this guy, whom everyone knew to be a team player and collaborator, was showing up behaving in his opposite style.
If you’re familiar with the archetype work originated by Carl Jung, you likely know some of terminology. There are DISC, Social Styles and a hundred hundred other spin offs, all of which use the same basic ideas and similar language. While the material provides insight into outward behavior, it doesn’t grade or measure anything else such as intelligence, promotability or take into account cultural differences or how we grew up. It just addresses our preferences for how to behave around others.
The company whose people I was training had just been acquired by a huge European corporation in November 2016. Not only that, the day before the training, it had added several more thousand people by buying yet another company.
For some folks who are natural risk takers, such activity spells opportunity, change and excitement.
For others, it’s terrifying, disorienting and frustrating. Those are the folks who rely on rules, regularity, process and procedures to get work done. Big shifts cause them to lose their equilibrium, get scared and sometimes, either stop work or jump ship entirely.
In such instances, the very people who made the company successful enough to purchase can walk out the door to a competitor.
This team had a man who was under extreme duress. He was undermining performance, causing disruption among his coworkers. They wanted help.
I’ve been through six acquisitions, and each one cost me my job. Ultimately I got trained in a change management certification course, which not only empowered me to stay independent as a contractor but also have valuable skills to support and guide employees and management teams through organizational change and transition.
All too many corporations never bother to tend to their employees’ needs after a buyout. The senior executives, who have been well aware of the coming change for months if not years, have already gone through the necessary process of adaptation. When the announcement hits, the effect is the same as those elite runners of a huge marathon who hit the finish line just as the average runners start the same race. The execs are on board. Why the hell isn’t everyone else?
This kind of self-absorbed short-sightedness (They just need to get with the program!) is what guts a good company’s best staff. For certain types, a change this big is akin to a death in the family. Being promoted to a new position all the way across the company isn’t necessarily good news. For example, if you are a Boulderite and you work in one of their typically dog- friendly, people-centric offices where nearly everyone has a puppers and food bowls next to their desk, it’s going to feel like a huge loss to move to a far more formal, no-dog environment which demands executive clothing every day. A good deal of what made work a joy is now missing. You may even have to give up your puppers entirely to keep your job and for some of us, that’s not negotiable.
You’re not going to be happy at all. Above all, those losses need to be acknowledged. When they aren’t, they fester like a nasty splinter. People leak their stress often without knowing, and they damage attitudes and performance along the way.
No matter what kind of change we experience, that change almost always entails a loss of some kind. Whether that’s losing the team it took you ten years to build, your favorite office, perks associated with your work or simply the great gal you reported to for five years, it makes no difference. In a swiftly- moving society which doesn’t tolerate or encourage mourning, the American workplace (and indeed our society in general) shoves at us to move forward, get over it, focus on the future.
All the while for many of us, we haven’t taken the time to respectfully “bury” what has passed for us. Without that formal acknowledgement, our losses, and the pain they contain, hang onto us wherever we end up. While many cultures around the world have rituals which honor passages, such as a boy’s entry into a adulthood or a girl’s coming of age, Americans have a terrible time with such emotional times. The moment the ink is dry on a divorce, five friends show up with new potential partners. You haven’t even begun to work through the hurt and now you’re supposed to be date-ready? The same thing happens at work. American society is deeply dismayed at stark emotions, and corporations tend to run to the hills when faced with such powerful reactions to the actions they’ve taken which disrupt so many lives.
This wholesale, corporatized denial of the very real emotional conditions of employees after a takeover is personified by the complete lack of attention to the needs of newly-acquired people to talk about their fears. Three-quarters of the stress is reduced when we are heard, when someone takes the time to hear us out. We may not have answers, but when our fears are validated rather than either ignored or outright poo-poohed, that keeps kerosene off the flames. Dismiss real emotions as hysteria or not being a good team player, that’s when good folks walk across the street, with all the company history, secrets and success strategies with them. Ignore pain to your peril, in other words.
Yet it’s still common practice. Despite the plethora of change and transition management programs available, most corporate weenies dismiss such investment in retention as a waste of time and dime.
“They’ll get over it,” is the typical answer.
Unless they don’t. Certain folks will take out their revenge on your precious IT databases. Others may sabotage systems. Make people feel worthless and they will make the company you just bought worthless. Recognizing that different people work out their anger and anxiety differently is management’s responsibility, and above all, figuring out how to respond to those needs is a critical strategic effort. You can’t afford to have one bitter IT professional trash your code or make off with corporate secrets. Yet they can, and do. Often that’s because they felt they were treated badly.
Great corporations understand that without committed and engaged people, they have no product to sell. To abuse those people is to set fire to the very product you purchased in the first place. As anyone who has been touched by downsizing can attest, it’s a highly emotional time, even in a full-employment economy. Those over forty have kids to put through college, mortgages to manage, a thousand concerns that unanswered fears will simply exacerbate. The folks with the most experience to offer as well supervisory and managerial experience have a lot to lose. To make them sit and stew in the “not knowing” is cruel and unusual punishment.
So what should you do?
At the very least, hold town halls. Listen. Validate people’s concerns and respond to their fears. You don’t have to have all the answers. The act of empathetic listening is a huge relief. Besides, you will hear all the rumors, some of which could be devastating to the company, and you can respond intelligently to them. In the absence of guidance from the top, people will fill in the blanks. A great deal of that filler is likely false, but in the face of absent executives or inept leadership, those rumors become gospel. When the rumor mill goes out of the control, your best people will head out the door, and with it, your profitability.
Provide courses on how to navigate change, and a separate course for supervisors to help manage their people through it. The managers are also feeling stressed out, and will likely immediately see the same dysfunctional behaviors among certain team members. Armed with strategies, procedures, processes and a slew of new ideas, those managers can calm the waters and offer a range of actions that go a long way towards settling folks down.
A visionary corporation that recognizes that people ARE the product ensures that newly-acquired talent through a buyout needs to understand that they are valued and safe. Handle any downsizing with grace, and provide services to get those folks hired elsewhere. How you treat those you are showing the door speaks to your moral code. People notice. They remember.
By the time we had brainstormed strategies to work with this “guy,” the team had a solid idea of their role in the problem as well as a variety of potential solutions which allowed them to use their best gifts. Not only that, they had a clear idea of how unwanted change impacts different people, including and especially themselves, and therefore a far greater appreciation for the behaviors they were observing. They were calmer. Laughing. Energized.
That’s how you want your workforce to be- especially going through corporate transition. The investment in their peace of mind will pay off in dividends many times over.