Managing Continuous Change

Dec 16, 2010

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

It’s been more than 20 years since the "human" side of organizational change became the hottest topic in management training circles. It’s still the top organizational challenge today.

Why is organizational flexibility still keeping CEOs up at night when they’d rather be worrying about revenue growth?

The answer is that change has, well…changed.

The corporate world has gotten better at coping with incremental changes and even the occasional large-scale transformation. But change is different today—it’s more like a flood of continuous, overlapping and accelerating transitions that have turned many organizations upside down. Managing people through that kind of change requires all the communication and leadership strategies we learned in the past —and then some.

Most people and processes are set up for continuity, not chaos. The shift from "a change" to "constant change" has upset the status quo we are by nature inclined to defend.

The pace of change is intense, and it shows no sign of abating any time soon. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for managing people through continuous change.

  • Realize that resistance to change is inevitable—and highly emotional. We’ve all seen this in action, but do we all know the cause? It’s a very real result of our neurological make-up. The part of our brain that processes change also is connected to the fear circuitry that controls our fight-or-flight response. Each of us is wired for the psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue, or anger. Being aware of and responsive to the emotional component of change is now a prerequisite for effective leadership. This task is extra tricky in today’s climate of constant change, when employees’ emotions are often dealing with multiple transitions at once.
  • Give people a stabilizing foundation. In a constantly changing organization, a leader can help employees embrace instability as positive by clearly and passionately articulating what the organization is trying to achieve. Create stability by emphasizing your corporate identity and collective focus of purpose, and by keeping your company's history, present activities, and vision for the future fresh and clear in everyone’s mind.
  • Help your staff/team/department understand that change really is the only constant. Never let people assume that once any single change is completed, the organization will solidify into a new form. Instead, help them understand that even as we adjust to a change, we should be getting ready for the next one.
  • Champion information access and knowledge sharing. Transparency can be a powerful catalyst for change. Even by sharing simple data that is already widely known in the company, you can demonstrate a willingness to share, to listen and to encourage conversation.
  • Encourage employees to mingle. Relationships and collaboration are increasingly vital in change management. Employee social networks based on mutual trust, shared work experiences, and common physical and virtual spaces can enhance your people’s change-readiness and creativity. Do whatever you can to nurture these mutually rewarding, complex, and shifting relationships.
  • Give up the illusion of control. No one likes change that is mandated, but most of us react favorably to a change we help create. Executives who expect organizational flexibility should loosen their grip in order to align the energies and talents of their organizations around change initiatives. As above, transparent communication with all levels of employees is critical if you want employees to understand the economic realities of the business, the real driving forces behind change, and how their actions impact the success of change initiatives

[This article is reprinted from the website of the American Management Association at www.amanet.org.]

Most people and processes are set up for continuity, not chaos.