Successfully Managing Change

Good people managers follow 5 principles and avoid 3 common mistakes

Given how frequently change occurs in the workplace, it's always surprised me how much managers struggle with managing change. In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." And indeed, the risks are great: Failure to manage change well can damage employee morale, create an atmosphere of mistrust, cause good employees to leave their jobs, and most importantly, disrupt business continuity. To manage change successfully, you need to avoid three common mistakes and observe a handful of change-management principles and strategies.

3 Common Mistakes
Managers who are unsure of their ability to manage change can easily end up alienating employees. In my experience, the three most common mistakes managers make when trying to manage change are making it a surprise, not doing enough to resolve uncertainty, and being insensitive to employees' feelings.

Making change a surprise. A colleague of mine once compared a reorganization in her division to a baby watching a jack-in-the-box: "Here you are sitting on the floor, looking at a colorful box, listening to soothing music, and then out of nowhere a scary clown-like puppet springs out of the box and the music stops." A sudden announcement of change can be jarring—particularly if employees don't perceive the need for the change.

When you spring change on employees, they feel ambushed and left out of important business or technical decisions. Why do managers surprise employees with change? Many do so in the belief that they're doing the right thing by not disrupting the rhythm of business or distracting employees. Although such managers mean well, this argument for sudden change is patronizing and rarely holds water. Save surprises for birthdays, when they're more likely to be appreciated.

Letting uncertainty over change linger. Allowing uncertainty over change to persist is just as bad as making change a surprise. Long periods of uncertainty often occur when a big change is only partially implemented, and during that period of unpredictability rumors spread unchecked. Uncertain employees become conservative because they don't want to take risks that might jeopardize their position after the change takes place. For example, employees might hesitate to take on long-term projects, fearing that the work they complete now will become irrelevant or unimportant.

Many managers fall into the trap of letting uncertainty over change linger because, although they recognize that making change a surprise is undesirable, they underestimate how long it will take to implement the change. The biggest consequence of lingering uncertainty over change is that top performers might find new jobs in which they can be successful immediately.

Being insensitive to employees' feelings. As a manager, you need to be careful about how you discuss the change, even if employees understand it and consider it to be good for the business. You need to be especially perceptive when a decision is made to discontinue a group's or individual's work. Simply announcing that the group or person will be reassigned to different projects or priorities will lead to the quality of those employees' work being questioned and could demoralize those employees if they perceive the change as a reflection of the value of their work.

Frequently, managers—particularly those who don't work directly with the affected employees—don't understand how personal an employee's work can be, especially if the employee has been working on a project for a long time. During times of change, recognize your employees' hard work and dedication, even if your business is moving away from the project they've been working on. It's also important to make your employees feel valued in the reorganized business.

5 Principles for Successfully Managing Change
You can successfully manage change by communicating clearly and being sensitive to employees' feelings. Let the following five principles guide you:

  • Be transparent. Whether the change is driven by bad news (e.g., poor sales) or good news (e.g., growth), be open and honest about why the change is taking place. Explain the reason for the change, the timeline for implementing it, and who the decision makers will be during the change process.
  • Initially announce the change to front-line managers and influential individual contributors. Ask those people to announce the change to their teams and to find out how their employees feel about it. Then, respond to everyone's thoughts and concerns in a larger meeting.
  • Drive for certainty. After the initial announcement about the change has been made, eliminate as much uncertainty as you can, even if it means implementing the change in some areas of your department before others. For example, if you know that some part of the larger organization will not be affected by the change, let that group of employees know as soon as possible.
  • Be sensitive to your employees' feelings. Some of your employees will react viscerally regardless of the type of change. Be honest, and explain why the future will be better than today even though difficult short-term trade-offs might accompany the change. If there will be a long period of time between the announcement of the change and its completion, update your employees regularly about the status of the change and the factors that are delaying its implementation.
  • Celebrate the change. One of the best lessons I've learned about managing change came from a Microsoft vice president who always makes the formal (and final) announcement of the completion of a change into a celebration of the new beginning that the change is bringing. And he doesn't make the announcement of change just a symbolic celebration—he makes it a real party.

The Measure of Success
A successful implementation of change is one that minimally disrupts the rhythm of your business, doesn't overly damage employee morale, and doesn't result in losing key employees in the process. Ultimately, the measure of successful change management is the time it takes to get everyone in your organization positioned and intellectually on board with the new mission. Because it's likely that you'll be managing many changes over the course of your career, develop the skills you'll need now so that you'll be prepared to manage the changes that will inevitably take place in the future.

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