The Manager as Chief Change Agent
Like it or not, managers are the ones who get saddled with the role of Change Agent in most organizations. Changes may come from the top, but the senior team is seldom involved in the implementation pains and pushback.
Change is constant, but that doesn’t make it any easier. On any given day, an employee might be grappling with seven kinds of difficult change simultaneously:
The impact of all that change, even for positive and motivated employees, is profound. Effective managers understand two things: First, that people need time and support to adopt change. Second, that making change isn’t optional and driving change is essential. Those two realities may seem contradictory, and that’s why managers need training to be good Change Agents.
Where Managers Get It Wrong When It Comes to Change
Typically, changes progress in this manner:
A business disruption or innovation forces a response. Executives hammer it out, in meetings, over a period of weeks or months.
Once decisions are made, next-level directors and managers are informed. They begin to make plans, set timelines, and discuss implications (budget, staffing, training), usually on the down low.
As the initial phases of the change approach, communication trickles out. Sometimes, it’s carefully orchestrated to cascade consistently to all employees. Other times, the rumor mill starts churning and people learn bits and pieces at different times. They fill in the blanks and assume the worst.
When the change is announced, executives and managers expect instant adoption of it. Instead, there’s resistance. People ask questions and are skeptical. They don’t have the same enthusiasm that the management team has developed at this point.
This is the first problem in rolling out change. Managers forget that they’ve had time to get accustomed to the idea. They don’t give others time to ease into it.
Most people don’t like change. They prefer to stay in their comfort zone, maintaining the status quo, and believe that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This is human nature. It’s not a character flaw, laziness, complacency, or competency gap. People, by and large, find even the happiest changes (new job, marriage, having children, moving to a new house) to be extremely stressful. Change isn’t easy.
Knowing this, the manager as Change Agent builds time into the rollout of major changes.
The second major miss when rolling out change is not enlisting others in changes that affect them. In some cases, like mergers and acquisitions, managers are bound to withhold some information. Even in these cases, there are ways to engage people in brainstorming, planning, and giving input about potential changes. People at the frontline care less about the secret stuff than they do about what’s happening in their day-to-day work. Stay narrow to avoid over-sharing, but don’t put everything in a cloak of secrecy that isn’t necessary.
The third way managers get it wrong is that they don’t get onboard with changes that they’re responsible for making. They give lip service to senior management but derail change by saying things like “they’re making us” and distancing themselves from the decisions. They also opt of changes, expecting their direct reports to get onboard but not doing their own part. For example, when training for the frontline team is offered, managers should also participate so they can reinforce whatever was taught. When new technology is introduced, managers should be the first ones to learn it and use it so they can support team members who later have to use it.
Finally, to be effective in handling change, managers should understand how to communicate about it. They need to hone their skills and display the attributes of effective Change Agents.
The Attributes of an Effective Change Agent
You don’t have to do it all alone. You don’t have to sit back and wait for change to happen to you… You can get ahead of it, work with others to positively influence it, and help others see the value of it. Like any leadership role, managing change requires courage and influence. Don’t rely on titular authority to force change. Instead, develop the attributes that make Change Agents effective.
Are not afraid to act.
Recruit other change agents.
Are not afraid to bring suggestions and alternatives to the forefront.
Are willing to move the organization out of its comfort zone.
Are sensitive to how others view change.
Effective Change Agents also work to include people early in the process. They:
Involve people who are affected by the change in the processes for evaluating and selecting options, in planning for transitions, and in giving feedback at every step of the change.
Acknowledge the difficulties associated with making a change. Rather than brushing off concerns, plowing ahead without regard for unintended consequences, or disregarding how people will feel about change, managers need to be aware and empathetic. That will speed up, not slow down, change.
Take other recent and current changes into account. Too much, too fast is unnecessarily stressful. Change should be strategically staged.
Don’t make change for the sake of change. They have clear, rational reasons for making changes. They don’t flit from one exciting new pursuit to the next in a “flavor of the day” or “squirrel!” fashion that exhausts others.
Implement change visibly and collaboratively. Change shouldn’t be sneaky. That only causes suspicion and heightened resistance.
You can’t coerce or charismatically charm people into supporting change. You can, however, dignify and respect them enough to consider their feelings and needs so that they’ll come around to the idea of change more quickly and with greater commitment.
The Change Announcement Template that Makes Change a Little Easier
To anticipate and meet others’ needs while accelerating buy-in and transition toward change, effective Change Agents use this 4-part formula to communicate clearly about change.
STEP 1: Describe the situation. Objectively outline what has happened to prompt a need for change. Stick to the facts. No catastrophizing, no suppositions, no blame. It would sound something like this: “As you know, our losses last year forced a reduction in staff. Now that we’ve recovered, we are going to add 50% of the previous headcount back. At the same time, we’ll be changing some job descriptions to reallocate workload. There will be movement between teams in our department. This is necessary as we rebuild and strategically position the company for continued growth.”
STEP 2: Acknowledge the feelings others may have about this change. Show that you empathize and care about the natural emotions people may feel in this time of change. Stay professional but not clinical in the way you acknowledge emotional reactions. Say something like, “I know I’m feeling apprehensive and imagine you might be, too, since we don’t have clarity yet on the specifics. For some, this might feel like it did when the layoffs were happening, and everyone was scared. I get it.”
STEP 3: State the known effects resulting from this change. Demonstrate that you’ve taken the time to understand and aren’t making this change lightly. There’s no need to get granular but include enough detail to let people know you’ve thought about them individually. Try something like this: “We’re all going to be impacted in some way. Even if our job roles and responsibilities and reporting structure stay the same, there will be movement on the team -- people coming and going -- that will change our team dynamics. It might be a bit disruptive to workflow initially, too.”
STEP 4: Express what you need and inquire about others’ needs. It will sound something like this: “What I need you to do is work with me on these job role surveys that have been distributed. I want to be sure we capture all aspects of each person’s current duties, even the ones that aren’t in your formal job description. Let’s get these done by the end of the month. Now, what do you need from me to make that happen?” Then, listen to people. Hear their concerns and help them find positives that can motivate them to make a change. You can’t push people to change, but you can expedite it by giving them a way to process the change and participate in it.