Why Workers Resist Change

Resistance to ChangeA client and I were recently discussing the natural resistance that accompanies most organizational change efforts when he quipped, “the only people who like change are wet babies!”  Well said.

Change is a part of our every day lives.  The pace of change is rapidly accelerating in workplaces.  Companies simply must keep up with the constant marketplace demands of change if they are to survive, much less thrive in this economy.

The ability to manage change effectively is a complex requirement of most managers and leaders in today’s workplaces.  Understanding how human’s process change is an important part of learning how to manage workplace change. The most challenging part of this equation is the “people” component.

Some of us are more receptive to change than others.  I’ve witnessed a worker revolt because of the need to move their desk by a foot! Others embrace almost any change as an exciting new opportunity or a deterrent to boredom.  Picture a typical bell curve when it comes to change.  About 20% of workers will be on the far end of the continuum of “Like change, bring it on!” while another 20% is on the other far end, “Not only no but —- no!”  The other 60% is in the middle and on the fence about the change; these are the folks you want to target your change management efforts towards.

Understanding the nature of change is important if you are going to succeed in your attempts at managing change in the workplace.  Humans seek control.  We tend to fear, dislike and avoid ambiguity.  We “react” negatively when our expectations for the way things should be aren’t met.  One rule of thumb–the more surprised we are by the change, the greater resistance you can expect.

It takes time for us to process and accept change.  Most initially respond to a change we didn’t create with disbelief and denial, “I can’t believe this is happening!”  This is usually the first stop on the change journey followed by resistance– picture arms crossed in defiance!  The next step is exploration, “OK, I guess we can try it anyway, do you have more information?” Exploration however is dependent on whether or not change is consistently well sponsored and communicated from leaders.  Once we have dipped our big toe into the change water and find it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, most of us will finally move to commitment (“I can support the change in this way”).

A few coaching tips to increase the likelihood of your change effort sticking:

  • Most humans are tuned into their own personal radio station-WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?)  Leaders trying to manage change should broadcast on this station to answers their typical questions like:  What will get better as a result of the change?  Worse? How much control do we have over what happens?  Can we assimilate this change at a reasonable pace?  Do we understand the micro/macro implications of the change?
  • People are more likely to support and commit to change they have helped create or design.  Involve your people (particularly the front line or “end users” of the change) early in the creation of the change.  Consult with them about their opinions.  What obstacles do they foresee?  How would they like to see the change rolled out?  What will work (or not) for them regarding the change?
  • Communicate often and consistently about the change.  Yes this will mean you have to repeat yourself—in my experience, most leaders greatly under communicate about change.  Use all available forums of communication available—intranet, email, phone, meetings and of course face-to-face conversations reinforcing the need and requirements for the change.  Wise sponsors of change know that what will dictate whether or not the change is adopted is their commitment and time spent shepherding it through the organization.
  • Allow people an opportunity to talk about and “vent” their frustrations about the change.  Yes, this may turn into a gripe session but better to get it out in the open and aired than for resistance to go underground.  Truly listening to understand what how your people feel about the change is important.    Once we feel “heard” we are more likely to move on.  Your people want to know that you care about them and how they will be impacted by the change. If you don’t respect them enough to at least hear them out about it—expect ongoing and potentially damaging resistance.

Boundary Setting at Work

Workplace BoundariesBoundaries are the focus of many of my client coaching conversations. For many individuals, establishing and maintaining appropriate workplace boundaries are a big challenge. Some lack confidence or assertiveness skills to successfully negotiate boundaries while others take on too much responsibility (enabling others to under function) resulting in overwhelm, resentment and stress. Others lack the appropriate interpersonal understanding of courteous and professional standards.

I think of boundaries as limits (or fences)—being able to know where I end (or where my work ends) and the other begins. Being able to set limits, having autonomy, decision making control and determining acceptable and non-acceptable behavior from others involves setting boundaries.

There are two categories of boundaries that matter in the workplace, personal (tied to interpersonal appropriateness) and professional. Professional boundaries determine the limits and responsibilities of those that you interact with in the workplace.

Workplace and team success are intricately tied to boundaries. Team members feel safe and operate more efficiently with each other when roles, tasks, standards of behavior and responsibilities are clearly defined, understood and agreed to by all. I find as an organizational consultant that the fairer and clearer the boundaries are—the better interpersonal relationships and teams operate. There are boundaries to consider whenever you are interacting with someone else or another department. When there is confusion about who has responsibility for what—finger pointing, conflict, accountability and performance issues arise.

When professional boundaries are well established and maintained—tasks and responsibilities are clear and understood thus alleviating redundancy and/or confusion about “whose on first and whose on second?” or “not my job”.

Job descriptions are one form of professional boundary setting but the problem is most are far too general. Few job descriptions clearly define specific tasks, duties and responsibilities (particularly with work being handed off and passed back and forth between departments). Most bosses and team leaders need to spend more time and attention on clarifying acceptable performance standards and task responsibilities.

Here are my coach’s tips around boundary setting:

  • First you need to know your own limits. What can you do well given the amount of time and resources you have been given?
  • Work through your fear of addressing the issue. Being able to work through tough issues successfully generally fosters improved trust in teams and relationships. Don’t be afraid to negotiate boundaries with the boss or coworkers. Start by communicating your intention/desire to produce quality work while identifying what constraints you face given available resources and/or available time. Identify and communicate what you need to be successful. What do you need from others? You likely have information and/or insight they lack. Clue them in on what reality looks like from your vantage. Boundary negotiations often revolve around establishing priorities, “reasonable” expectations and agreed to definition of performance standards.
  • Communicate your abilities respectfully and honestly. Don’t try to pretend you can do something you cannot nor try to be superman/ superwoman! You burning out or feeling resentful isn’t healthy for you or the business. Speak up if you know you have been given an impossible or improbable task with limited odds of success. On the flip side, in this tough economic environment if you are just trying to protect your Internet surfing or slack off time—beware because these days dead wood is being cut!
  • Listen and verify your understanding of the others needs, interests, concerns and feelings. Emotions are often “up” when negotiating boundaries—people often react with fear or anger when they believe their interests are threatened. If you dismiss the other’s emotions you will be fueling them. Instead, try to convey that you “get” them (by the way this doesn’t mean agreeing with them).
  • If you are the boss—it’s your responsibility to define acceptable and non-acceptable behavior for the good of the business and the people in it. There is middle ground in the continuum between having no boundaries (a bad thing) or having boundaries that are so rigid they stifle creativity, morale or a worker’s ability to do their best. There are of course some that should be rigid—stealing, verbal/physical abuse etc.
  • Who else needs to know? Much of workplace confusion and conflict is a result of someone failing to clue others in the organization in on changes in roles, task handoffs or performance criteria/expectations.

Employee Stress

Have you noticed Seattle workers seem more highly stressed than ever? It seems to me there is a perceptible increase in grouchiness, negative emotional reactivity and stress levels. This spring’s lousy weather coupled with the ongoing recession reality, global distress with the nightly barrage of horrific oil spill pictures seems to have combined for a perfect storm leaving everyone on edge.

Job stress specifically is on the rise. Recent surveys (Northwestern National Life) indicate that 25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 75% of employees surveyed believe workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago (according to Princeton Survey Research Associates).

Workers are being asked to do more with less and cover task responsibilities for laid off co-workers and diminishing resources. Technically is advancing at warp speed, keeping most of us on a vertical learning curve just trying to keep up. 5 generations in the workplace keep us all challenged trying to communicate effectively with each other. Many workplaces operate at an unending fast pace where urgency has become the norm vs. the exception. The constant urgency keeps many in “fight or flight” mode day after day. Migraines and tension headaches are on the rise along with fatigue and illness. All this constant stress takes a tremendous toil on our physical and mental well-being. It’s no wonder many Americans dread going to work.

These are tough times for workers and leaders. No one is immune. So how can leaders keep up morale in these high stress times? I don’t have a magic bullet but I can offer some suggestions for leaders:

  • Manage by walking around. Don’t hide away in your office. Keep a pulse on what’s happening with your people. If you disappear or go silent, rumors will take over adding to the stress levels. When you do communicate, do so authentically and candidly. Treat your people like the adults they are and don’t withhold information.
  • Model work life balance. If you never leave the office, likely your staff will feel pressured to do the same. Avoid sending out emails to staff late at night! This is an unconscious message that they too should be tethered to their Blackberries and PDAs 24/7 which is unhealthy. Leaders and staff working at a rapid fire pace need to take time to rejuvenate. Taking care of the foundation is important. Exercise (it releases endorphins and burns off excess adrenaline and cortisol) and find ways to truly disconnect from the workplace.
  • Be careful about the emotional wake you leave with staff—your emotions are contagious. Your staff looks to you to see how you are reacting/responding to stress—if you get wigged out, expect them to follow you. Be conscious about how you show up emotionally to your people. As best you can, try to demonstrate a calm confident demeanor. If you find yourself highly anxious, develop methods to self soothe (I like belly breathing because your breath is always with you as a highly reliable strategy, besides it is proven to lower heart and respiratory rates).
  • Find a coach or trusted outside partner that you can let it all hang out with—someone you can safely vent to and be a sounding board. An objective perspective can often be invaluable during tough times. It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Isolating yourself isn’t healthy.
  • Notice the emotional field of your team and workplace. Give people time to talk about their stress and emotions during team meetings. People find comfort in hearing from other team members. Your job during these venting times is to listen well and offer them sincere appreciation and understanding for what they are going through.
  • Engage hearts and minds. Involve and consult with your team before making decisions. Ask them their opinions. Allow them opportunities to get involved with creative problem solving.
  • During highly stressful times its more important than ever to reward and recognize. From verbal thank you’s to special public recognition, make a concentrated effort to demonstrate true appreciation. Bring in special treats for the team (consider a massage therapist or yoga instructor) to reward a job well done.

Great leaders learn how to coach

While most managers have the skills required to “get work done,” many lack the skills required to effectively coach others. But increasingly, managers are being asked to use coaching as a preferred management style and, as a result, are being required to develop entirely new skill sets.

Learning coaching skills is a process — it requires role-modeling, training, practice and feedback. It often involves “unlearning” old methods and styles that are no longer effective in today’s workplace.

In trying to define what makes a great coach, think about the last time someone coached (or helped) you to achieve something important to you. What did he or she do that helped? Most people might list qualities such as the following:

  • Listening well.
  • Believing in me.
  • Providing feedback to help me improve my skills.
  • Being willing to show me the way.
  • Giving me a new task or responsibility that was a learning opportunity.

The list is always long as there are many components of effective coaching. That’s because coaching is an art — a balance between the softer relationship skills (empathy, caring, listening and interpersonal competence) and business skills (process expertise, setting clear expectations, giving direction and offering constructive feedback).

Here are a few of the traits and skills of great leaders with coaching skills:

The ability to build genuine trust, respect and rapport. This is the foundation for coaching success — it’s what fuels the coaching partnership. Employees who distrust or are uncomfortable with their coach find it easy to dismiss the coach’s message. Effective coaches convey sincere interest and concern for workers’ well-being and growth. They are credible; their audio matches their video; and they demonstrate integrity and personal respect.

They are active listeners (versus passive observers). The leader-as-coach is in tune with the person’s story, intentions and feelings (the emotions behind the words). If you have ever had someone listen to truly understand you, you have no doubt experienced the difference. This interaction can be truly profound and inspirational.

They demonstrate genuine empathy. While not everyone is naturally empathetic, empathy is a skill that can be developed. Empathy means trying to understand how an experience affects the other person — what it’s like to walk in their shoes. An important distinction: Empathy is not agreement; it’s understanding and acknowledging the feelings and experience of the other.

They have personal authority and credibility. Great coaches are adept at challenging and suggesting or demonstrating new behaviors. Their personal authority, confidence and competence allows them to challenge, reward success in a meaningful way and treat errors as learning opportunities while employees learn new skills.

The best leader/coaches establish clear direction and protection, and create a motivating environment. They are persistent regarding the need for follow-through on commitments.

They ask powerful questions. They encourage learning by asking questions to raise the employee’s awareness, level of performance and accountability. The questions are open-ended (i.e., those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no).

This approach is very different from “telling” employees what to do or giving them the answers to their problems. Here are a few examples:

  • What resources are needed?
  • What obstacles might get in the way?
  • What has not been tried?
  • What will you commit to doing and when?

They set clear goals and expectations. Have you ever seen the words “Vince Lombardi” and “wishy-washy” in the same sentence (until now)? A key to effective coaching is the ability to clearly communicate goals, define specific action plans and foster ownership of or commitment to the attainment of these goals.

They are realists who can hold others accountable for activity, action and results. The SMART acronym is a useful guide for coaching — it defines setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

Coaching is an activity that always involves the question, “What’s the next step?” Great leaders with coaching skills hold people accountable for taking action and achieving results.

They provide clear, effective and challenging feedback. This coaching skill is so critical that it deserves its own column (see next week).

The challenge for many organizations is how to establish an effective program for managers to learn and master these skills. Most organizations require outside expertise to accomplish this.

Mastering the Art of Feedback

Closing the gap between goals and performance is a continual challenge for leaders. Mastering coaching skills can help close that gap. One of the most important skills to master is giving effective, and potentially difficult, feedback to others. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t born with natural talents in delivering challenging feedback, so some level of skill development is usually necessary.

Leaders with great coaching skills are adept at offering feedback that encourages learning, development and change — in good times and bad. They can deliver difficult information in a way that encourages behavior change. Feedback, as a core coaching skill, is delivering information and perspective to another person about an observable behavior.

How feedback is received, and whether it creates change, is all about how it is delivered. Many of us have a tendency to take challenging feedback personally. But most of us prefer feedback that is simple to understand, straightforward and presented in a non-accusatory style.

Here are some feedback delivery tips:

  • Consider timing. Feedback should be delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible. The year-end performance review is too late. Most people aren’t able to hear critical feedback (without getting defensive) when they are highly emotional or reactive. It’s much better to wait until people calm down and can hear it.
  • Prioritize critical behaviors. Too often, managers focus feedback on what bothers them in others versus identifying specific behaviors that drive performance. Or they give too much feedback at one time, which can overwhelm the person. The 80/20 rule applies — 80 percent of performance comes from about 20 percent of our behaviors. The best coaches identify critical behaviors, focus on key expectations and review specific behavioral changes that could significantly improve performance.
  • Be behaviorally specific. Encourage the employee to take responsibility by focusing on acts, not attitudes. State the information in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Effective feedback doesn’t leave the employee wondering what you meant. To be a great coach, you need to be a great observer. The best feedback is factual — what a video camera would have recorded. Just like playing the game tapes in preparation for the “big game,” managers use observable behaviors and patterns to help clarify the issues and identify behaviors that require change.
  • Identify change as a process versus an event. The most effective coaches provide ongoing feedback and encourage people to learn from their successes and failures. They set the expectation that feedback needs to be a two-way communication process; they are open to and encourage reciprocal feedback.
  • Identify impact. Great coaches illuminate “blind spots” so people see themselves as others see them. They provide feedback that identifies the consequence, feelings or impact of the behavior in question. It is not uncommon for individuals to be oblivious to the distress a simple comment or action can cause.
  • Define expectations. Feedback includes offering suggestions, direction or identifiable goals. What do you want the employee to do differently? An effective challenge can be to identify what you want more or less of: “I want more suggestions for solutions and fewer complaints during our meetings.”

Best-practice coaching and feedback requires different approaches for different situations.

Coaching the most talented people can be tricky. Providing feedback to high-performers often requires a different skill set and approach. By their very nature, high-performers are different — they get bored easily, and when in trouble may be difficult to challenge without negatively affecting motivation. High-performers tend to run at light speed while generating the kind of results that senior management loves — they require a specialized set of coaching skills to keep them challenged and on track.