To state the glaringly obvious: change doesn’t work without people.
We have all seen masses of time, money and energy invested in bringing whizz-bang new systems, processes, technologies and structures into our workplaces, only to see these fall over when they’re not supported by behavioural changes.
This is one of the challenges we see at Blue Seed again and again – and no doubt one of the reasons less than 40% of Australian Public Sector employees think change is handled well by their agencies.
The human side of change
Organisations tend to do pretty well at managing the mechanics of change (the science) but are much patchier in terms of the human side (the art). This is completely understandable. Relatively speaking, it’s much easier to, say, design and roll out a new app than it is to win enough hearts and minds to get people to actually use it. People are more complex than technology.
In Psychology Today (‘Change, Change, Change…But How? Busting Pathologies for Sake of the Environment and more’), Joseph Cardillo explores the work of Dr. Joan Freeman on shifting mindsets to support action against climate change. Creating more environmentally aware behaviour has long been a battlefield of different approaches: carrot, stick and everything in between. There is no zone of human experience where change can be more critical or more urgent. And yet, although most of us care about the environment and sustainability, humans are notoriously bad at making real changes to reduce our carbon footprint, let alone save the planet.
Thinking differently about behavioural change
But it’s not all bad news. Freeman offers some fantastic, simple tips to help us think differently about behavioural change. Reading these, I was struck by how beautifully they fit with our Blue Seed philosophy of change intelligence.
1. The idea is to move individuals past denial and apathy into participation
Participation is everything. People will put up walls when they feel that change is happening to them, but will break down walls with their bare hands if they believe the change is for them and by them. There are two parts to this:
- Make sure people understand why the change is happening and what they will get out of it – this might be that their work will be easier or that they’ll be able to deliver better outcomes for their customers. Everyone wants to do their job well.
- Democratising change by spreading responsibility and ownership across all levels of the business, so people feel that they are part of the movement and working towards a common goal. At Blue Seed we split change leadership into three levels: Change Architects (often senior leaders and sponsors); Change Enablers (those who design and facilitate the change, including project teams) and Change Makers (those on the front line of change, including operational staff working directly with customers). Each of these groups is critical to making change happen and should be equally acknowledged for making it a success. When all three are working together in a ‘CQ system’, this is when change really hums!
2. Understand that just telling someone to change isn’t going to work
Sounds obvious, right? But while this is generally well understood for changes that require voluntary uptake or adoption, it’s often overlooked for mandatory changes. This is where it’s easy to say – ‘The change is happening whether you like it or not, so get on board!’ It’s not enough to just explain what the change is and insist that people shift their behaviour. While it might look on the surface like people are coming along, there are a million ways to obstruct or undermine change if you feel like it’s been forced on you.
This is why Blue Seed practitioners are passionate about working with leaders to understand the value of listening and leading through change with wisdom, flexibility and empathy, understanding the simple truth that change is hard for people. This is real change intelligence. And it takes considered effort.
3. Combat “zombie arguments,” (which ought to be dead, yet live on, outside the scope of reason) and old beliefs with solid and accurate information.
This needs to be supported by information on
- What is true and what is not
- What is immediately beneficial to the individual
- What can each individual actually do about it
The prospect of change often creates anxiety for people, and anxiety creates misinformation. I have worked with many agencies on structural change programs, and it amazes me how often people insist on equating structural change with one thing: job loss. In many cases, restructures are not driven by cost-cutting – and even when they are, savings are rarely found by just cutting salaries (for example, redesigning processes to be more efficient is a great way of reducing costs). Most of the time, the strongest driver for structural change is arranging the organisation in a more logical way so teams and individuals can do their jobs more effectively. Usually, these changes are long overdue and will benefit most people in the organisation in some way, and certainly the customer.
Where misinformation is a problem, change practitioners need to be brave enough to tackle this head-on. Bringing people together for information/Q&A sessions is one way to take the bull by the horns. While it can be uncomfortable to stand in front of a group of people and hear their concerns, it’s a great way to make sure messages are on point. It also gives staff confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that there’s transparency in how the change program is being managed. This will help encourage participation, and as we know already, participation is key!
4. Make “messages” easy to process, fluent rather than difficult to understand, with a sense of familiarity, and use a lot of repetition.
Tell it, tell it and tell it again. It’s easy to feel like a broken record when communicating about change, but the truth is that it’s much better to take this approach than to mention something once and just hope it’s landed. The more important the message, the more often it needs to be told.
At the same time, messaging around change doesn’t have to be dull, and it needn’t feel generic. Keeping communications clear, avoiding technical jargon and using a positive voice goes a long way to getting your message across without boring the pants off your audience. This is an art and takes practice. Blue Seed practitioners understand how to craft messages for any audience based on the principles of simplicity, positivity and practicality
5. Use rewards and incentives. Individually you can choose change over more of the same and feel the emotional satisfaction that supports your decision.
This isn’t about giving away meat trays or movie vouchers. As Dr Freeman points out, the real reward and incentive for choosing change, at an individual level, is usually the satisfaction that you have been brave enough to make a leap, and for the right reasons. If you can quantify this for people, even better.
Don’t be afraid to call out success where you see it. In the momentum of change, with challenges at every turn, it is easy to forget how far you’ve come. Acknowledging the achievements of individuals and teams in making change happen is a powerful motivator – not to mention that it’s just the right thing to do! Positive psychology tells us that to improve happiness individuals should create new habits, and that to build new habits we need others to motivate and support us.
Our purpose is to make transformational change achievable and create a lasting capability for our clients. Our unique approach empowers organisations to create the best return on investment for their change efforts.
We’ve seen that the sooner an organisation is willing to identify and address its (human) change capability needs and gaps in detail, the quicker it will be likely to reap the rewards.