With just over a month to go till the Spark The Change conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about change in the workplace.
As an organizational communicator – and even as a coach – my work has always been about change. “Everything is the same as it was yesterday,” is not a message I’ve ever sent, or even heard. While “no change” may be a true reflection of the situation, it’s not something we shout about. Even when we wish things would just stop changing for a second, while we catch our breath, we know it’s not realistic. When markets, environments, regulations, politics, consumer preferences, off-shoring, competitors, technology and a zillion other factors demand that we adjust and respond, not changing is not surviving.
But how do you do it?
We know what doesn’t work.
When I first worked in change management, in the late 1980s, my organization hired high-priced consultants to tell us what to do. The prevailing idea was, “Scare people into changing.”
I recall the mantra, “Change or Be Changed.” I’m sure I wrote it into several executive speeches and articles for assorted publications. The idea was that, if we don’t voluntarily change the way we do things, something will come along and force us to do it. Might as well do it now than go kicking and screaming. Or maybe we could do it next week. What’s wrong with a good kick and scream?
We told stories about the “burning platform,” in which a worker caught on a blazing North Sea oil rig chose probable death over certain death, jumped off the drilling platform into the icy sea and was rescued. Only a blaze would have caused that behaviour change. This story was designed to get us to develop a sense of urgency around the need to change. But when employees look around and see that you have lots of customers, you’re raking in profits, nothing seems to be changing except the rhetoric and your CEO is taking a million dollar bonus, things don’t look particularly urgent.
One consultant trotted out my old friend Kurt Lewin, from Psychology 315 and his metaphor of ice. If you want the ice to change from a cube to a pyramid, you have to unfreeze and refreeze it in the new shape. (Could we use the burning platform to melt it?) We’d have to give up cherished beliefs about our selves and our organization and challenge the status quo. Not easy for executives and managers who were very well treated by the status quo. While we were sloshing around in that liquified state, waiting to refreeze into the new status quo, things would be chaotic, disordered and generally awful. No wonder people resist change.
Yes, we would meet resistance. Yet we knew (as the Borg kept telling us on Star Trek) “Resistance is futile.” The favoured model of resistance was the (Elizabeth) Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, in which someone needs to pass through Denial, Anger, Depression and Bargaining to get to Acceptance. Why grief? Well the old ways were dead. We needed to mourn and move on. I remember thinking that, even though I understood the “why” for change and was 100 per cent behind the notion that we had to do it, I was, nevertheless, resisting. I wanted proof we would actually do it and that it would work. More than that, I wanted someone else to go first. I don’t think I got past Bargaining. And if I, the Change Girl, wouldn’t go, who else would?
Communication was acknowledged to be a key success factor or I wouldn’t have been involved. The why of the change wasn’t hard to describe. But what and how were a mystery. I’d prepare messages that reflected what employees wanted to hear, which was, “This is going to be hard but here’s how we’ll support you.” Then I’d prepare messages that reflected what executives wanted to say, which was mostly, “Bla bla bla.”
What I wish we’d known about in those old days of “change management” was how to take an appreciative approach. Instead of scaring people into different behaviours, why not unleash them to find their own way? While we were freezing and burning and and resisting things, a grad student named David Cooperrider was “unfreezing” our notions of change. His process, Appreciative Inquiry, shifts organizational change from a problem to be solved to a creative endeavour. We ask questions about what’s working and have conversations about how we got that and how to get more. It sees the organization as organic, alive and able to change because it has done so in the past. By examining what is right and good, people are reminded of their abilities and resilience. They have more confidence and comfort to journey into the unknown future when they bring forward known parts of their past.
New ideas and tools
Appreciative Inquiry is just one of many tools we have today that we didn’t know about in the ’80s. We also have the benefit of knowing, thanks to advances in neuroscience, how human brains work. And we can talk about how we feel about change, thanks to the widespread acceptance of emotional intelligence as a factor in success.
I’m looking forward to Spark The Change, April 23, in Toronto where I expect to collide with people from diverse disciplines and types of organizations who want to create better workplaces. I’m anxious to hear new ideas from speakers who aren’t just talking about change, they’re doing it. I know we can create organizations that not only operate more successfully as enterprises but are also saner places to work.