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Shepherd People through Change; Don't Avoid it!

There is a common misconception that people are afraid of change, and that they will do almost anything to avoid change -- especially at work. Actually, people typically do not fear change at all; in fact, they even seek it. They seek variety in the clothes they wear, the foods they eat, the vacations they take, in virtually every facet of their lives.

At work, as people gain experience over time, they become increasingly competent at what they do. But when things change, people become less competent, at least temporarily, while they adjust to the changes in their work environment. Any time significant change is introduced to the work people do, or the way they do it, or with whom they do it, people will become temporarily incompetent while they make adjustments and redevelop their competency. People actually fear this incompetence that so often accompanies change -- not the change itself. They often need time to regain previous levels of proficiency.

Managers can make a considerable difference in helping people adapt through times of change at work. When change occurs, it is more important than ever for managers to provide clear focus and direction. By clearly articulating the aims toward which people should be working, and by minimizing the impact of factors that disrupt cooperation, great managers help people work through change.

Managers can also take deliberate steps to create a work environment where people adjust more quickly to performance challenges that are brought on by change. When significant change that impacts people's work is imminent, managers can help people stay focused on what must be done. Then, during periods of change, managers can do several things that will help people maintain their direction and adjust to the changes in their work or the work environment.

Here are a few key things for managers to think about when shepherding people through change:

Advance Notice
Whenever possible, notify people in advance of the changes to come. This will enable them to take preparatory steps that will make the transition a smoother one, and one that will have a lesser impact on their ability to continue getting results. Because the people doing the work are so much closer to the actual work and the conditions under which it must be done, they will be better able to anticipate obstacles that the change is likely to bring about, and take steps to avert those difficulties before they negatively impact results.

Monitoring Progress
Exceptional managers pay particularly close attention to performance and results during times of significant change. Often during times of change, people become temporarily "stuck" or have difficulty working effectively. Know that this is normal! Helping people see beyond this temporary incompetence is part of managing change. Remind them how they learned to be proficient in the past, and that that capability did not come overnight. Give them accurate, prompt feedback on their results so they can see the marginal improvements they make as they adapt.

However, be aware: when people seem entirely lost, or when they arrive at a complete impasse, managers can often help by sharing the rationale behind the change, by painting the picture of how the changes in the work will ultimately improve things and make for a better future. There is nothing more disheartening than believing that arbitrary changes are thoughtlessly being imposed on the way people work.

Maintaining Focus
By reminding people of the ultimate aims of their work -- the real purpose behind the work that they are asked to do every day -- managers can prevent people from losing focus or falling subject to the myriad distractions and disruptions that occur every day. When things are going smoothly, people are generally pretty good at blocking out the "noise" -- the rumors, innuendo, gossip and assumptions that float around in every place of work. But in times of change, these types of distractions can much more mislead people from focusing on what must be done. By steadily paying attention to the larger purpose behind the work, managers can help people stay focused on the "bigger picture," and prevent them from getting bogged down in the minutiae of the changes as they encounter their effects on the work.

Minimizing Disruption
Change is notorious for disrupting people's ability to work effectively, and it can bring a multitude of distractions all by itself. It is not only the manager's job to remind people to focus on what is important -- it is also the manager's job to help people disregard or ignore what is not important to the work or to getting results. Remember that people will place importance on whatever the person in charge pays attention to. So it is the manager's job to minimize the impact of distractions by disregarding or "tabling" issues that do not directly impact the results of the work.

Effective managers think about and act on these four things: 1) helping people anticipate change, 2) helping people see the incremental performance improvements they make as they adapt to changing environments, 3) helping people stay focused on what really matters through times of change, and 4) minimizing the impact of disruptions people encounter while navigating change.

As a result, managers often find that people actually embrace change, and all its potential.

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