People and Change: What often goes wrong
For humans – our species is characterized above all others by a more than reasonable adaptability – this should be a home game, so to speak. But humans are also creatures of habit. And especially in the digital modern age, this ability to adapt has reached a completely new quality. The perceived speed of change is one of the most formative moments of our time.
Some people even talk about exponential change, and have the idea in their minds that different developments build up each other and thus promote change even further. One might think, for example, of the cultural change brought about by digitalization in conjunction with the increasing computing power of the structures required for this.
What Change has in common with fat: Both are vital and unloved at the same time
The topic of change becomes loud not only in everyday life or in politics, but especially in the business environment. Hardly any other topic is as unpopular with employees as change projects. The typical human tendency to persist also makes us put up with a lot, just so that we can stick to what we are used to – only when a company gets into trouble after years in this force field and its own workplace is in danger is the necessary change – retrospectively, so to speak – brought about. Oh, if only we had …
Because as soon as it has come to this, only very far-reaching (and often painful) measures will help. The – sleepy – strategic change is certainly the lesser evil in comparison. You don’t have to be an economist for that: The earlier you start, the more leeway you have. An early, strategic change can therefore be made much more sensitive and considerate than hard crisis management, which is only about survival. Sounds plausible.
So why is Change so unpopular – even though it is vital?
There are many reasons for this. The most important ones:
- Because change takes employees out of their comfort zone.
- Because mastering established actions with the existing knowledge has led to success so far – the employee therefore feels “in the old” safe and competent. Both are important, human motives.
- Because treading new paths certainly involves the “destruction” of the old and proven – but the new paths and their “correctness” are uncertain.
- Security is one of the basic needs. In Maslov’s hierarchy of needs – known mostly in the form of the typical pyramid – the need for security comes right after physical needs; in this sense, security is almost as important as eating.
- Because treading new paths means extra work That doesn’t necessarily sound like a knock-out criterion, but today’s companies have long worked towards efficiency. Efficiency includes workload. And when you’re working to capacity anyway, additional workloads sound anything but tempting.
Because when you break new ground and learn something new, the perceived level of personal competence initially drops. Logically, this must be the case: when new competencies are developed, they were inevitably not there before.
Change therefore expects, at least to some extent, that a person will give up a thing that dominates him or her and exchange it for a thing that initially dominates the person. This leads to a feeling of heteronomy – and that is a strong psychological moment. The heteronomous person is subject to a force to which he does not correspond. This has a lot to do with compulsion and affects one’s own self-image on a profound level. This “heteronomy” also affects the whole situation, the workplace, competencies, structures etc. Self-determination is an important personal motive. If it is endangered, one reacts with resistance. This is completely normal.
This factor is reinforced by the fact that change decisions sometimes cannot be made together with the workforce (e.g. in crisis situations) or that this simply does not happen despite the possibility (inadequate change management).
Criticism that is not really criticism
Resistance is therefore the order of the day in change projects for very understandable reasons. (At least for a certain time, this is also called the “valley of tears”).
This is quite normal. Although these resistances usually take the form of factual criticism, they are often not actually meant to be factual. Mostly the fears or self-interests (e.g. security, power …) described above are behind them. For many people, emotions are not part of the workplace – protected factual criticism can therefore serve as a valve for the inner drives.
Such an approach corresponds to the cultural imprint of many people, so one can hardly reproach them for it. But if one is not aware of it, one would of course discuss those “factual” objections on a factual level as well – and that does not lead to success. Those responsible for change should be aware that there are often hidden causes underneath these arguments – these are the ones that one should get to the bottom of and address.
So what can be done better?
I try as much as possible to involve all employees – at least those affected by the change – in the change process as early as possible. At best already at the stage when the necessity for change is recognized, discussed and the decision to develop a change project is made. Good communication is much more difficult than it sounds, especially in a company. Especially in this early phase, however, it is even easier compared to later. For me there are two elements that are central to this:
- What can be achieved with the change.
- What happens if we do not change.
There is usually a very clear gap between these two positions – there is a field of tension that can be grasped fairly immediately. And such tension is beneficial. This initial tension is necessary for the individual’s “buy-in” to change and should indicate as early as possible that change is inevitable for survival. In many cases, especially in today’s competitive environment, it is clear where it will lead if you do not adapt to new conditions.
One thinks of Socrates’ famous phrase: “He who wants to move the world must first move himself”. Reduced to a leader: If you want to move the company, you must first move the people.
In any case, however, you should do your utmost to turn “affected” employees into contributors by jointly shaping the change.
Sounds good. Then why doesn’t everybody do it?
Unfortunately, in practice I often experience the complete opposite. One tries to integrate the employees as late as possible. What is the reason for this?
One reason for this is the feeling of being seen as a “bad manager”, because at the time of communication no solution can be named. This assumption probably originates from the Tayloristic understanding of leadership (planning and control by an “all-knowing” leader).
⇒ In fact, however, it is precisely this early involvement that is usually perceived as “good leadership” – it must of course be accompanied by good communication. Early information followed by integration into the solution process has a collegial, trust-building and transparent effect.
Another motive can be the feeling that these constant meetings with many employees would cause unnecessary costs and also uncertainty and are therefore inefficient.
⇒ In fact, from my own experience, I am firmly convinced that a subsequent or later integration of employees is much more costly, because then …
… even more (and unnecessary!) resistance must be overcome.
… the collective intelligence of the employees can only be used insufficiently.
… the change process as a whole usually takes longer.
… sometimes the change goal is not achieved at all.
For me, change projects are part of everyday life. And experience has taught me that the best results are clearly achieved with open, honest communication and very early involvement of the employees. q.e.d.
Are you faced with the challenge of making your business model more sustainable so that you will still be successful tomorrow? And to actually implement this change in your company? Then please contact me at email@example.com.
Publications and professional articles on the subject of change
Gelungener Change mit externer Unterstützung
MaschinenMarkt, Nr. 20/2019, 23. September 2019
Viele Change-Projekte verlaufen nicht mit dem gewünschten Erfolg, doch ein Patentrezept gegen das Scheitern gibt es nicht. Interimsmanager werden daher zu immer wichtigeren Partnern – nicht zuletzt, weil sie die Erfolgsquote heben….
Strategische Unternehmensentwicklung: Chancen nutzen mit Interim Managern
Controller Magazin – Zeitschrift für Controlling-Praxis, Nr. 3, Mai/Juni 2018, S. 58 f.
Interim Manager sind selbstständige Führungskräfte, die auf Zeit von den Unternehmen eingesetzt werden. Vor allen kleinere Betriebe profitieren enorm von solchen Einsätzen …