4 common change management mistakes to avoid

Picture this: You’re rolling out a new piece of technology or system that will make your company run better and more efficiently. You’re excited about the possibilities it has for your company’s growth.

Your employees? Not so much.

For some reason, not everyone shares your unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, some employees are even openly hostile about the change.

What happened?

Odds are, you relied on the old notion “build it and they will come,” and spent your resources on developing the change, instead of worrying about managing the change. But, no matter how awesome the change would be for your company, if your employees don’t understand or value it, they likely won’t embrace it. It’s important to craft a detailed communication plan before launching any new change initiative — whether it’s updating your vacation policy or reorganizing the company’s entire sales force. Change is change. And it can be unsettling. With a little planning, you can make the process smoother for everyone.

Understanding resistance

On the whole, people are naturally resistant to change. But some are more adaptable than others. In the 1960s, communications scientist Everett Rogers developed the diffusion of innovations theory to describe how individuals respond to change, which inspired the field of change management for decades to come. Here’s a simplified version. Basically, with any group of employees, about 15 percent are early adopters. They’re flexible and can roll with the changes. For instance, early adopters are usually the first to buy the latest iPhone. The bulk of employees in the middle are change agnostic. They’ll go along with the change but can really take it or leave it. At the other end of the spectrum are the 15 percent or so of employees who are change resistant. They won’t change, or will make the change only when forced.

Each company contains a mix of these personalities. You should address them all when communicating change. Change-resistant employees require a completely different type of communication than early adopters. The former need to know what’s in it for them. What’s the vision? What’s the plan? Why can’t they stay with the status quo? Do they really have to change?

The change curve

For additional insight into how change affects employees, consider the change curve – a classic tool of change management. You’re probably familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s. The model has since been tweaked to help explain what people go through during organizational change. For example, your employees will likely experience the following stages during a change initiative:

  1. shock (“I can’t believe it!”)
  2. denial (“It will never work here!”)
  3. frustration (It’s management’s fault!”)
  4. depression (“I give up. The change is happening whether I like it or not.”)
  5. experimentation (“Well … maybe we could make it work.”)
  6. decision-making (“Let’s move forward.”)
  7. integration (“We’ve made the change. Now let’s get back to business.”).

Every person in your organization needs to cycle through these stages before the change becomes a seamless part of your company. Also, remember, you’re probably already in the last stages of the change curve by the time you launch the change. You’ve discussed it, decided how to implement it and are ready to integrate it into your company. In contrast, your employees are right at the beginning of the curve. They need more time and information to get where you are.

Don’t make these four mistakes

Now that you understand the barriers to change, it’s time to carefully draft a communication plan that makes your case. Unfortunately, many business owners and leaders skimp on this step and expect their enthusiasm for the initiative to be contagious. It’s important to put aside your own emotions and, instead, put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Avoid making these crucial mistakes.

1. Not articulating the need for change

Your employees need to understand the reason behind the change. Will it help make them more productive or make their jobs easier? Will it help the company increase profits, which could translate into better job security or better compensation for them? If the reason for change is not compelling enough, they won’t be moved to action.

If you’re not careful, a lack of enthusiasm for a new initiative or policy can quickly turn into lackluster performance from your employees. That’s not the kind of change your customers or clients want to see.

How to avoid it: Start your communication efforts well before you launch the change, using a targeted mix of communication channels. Email memos and group presentations are a great way to explain the logic and vision behind the change, as well as one-on-one meetings where employees can privately share their concerns. Aim for a level of communication that keeps the change on your employees’ radar, but doesn’t overwhelm them.

2. Not giving a clear vision of the future

What’s the future going to look like after you implement the change? Change initiatives can get off to a fast start and generate a lot of initial excitement, but if your employees can’t visualize your destination, that enthusiasm may fade pretty quickly. They may not put their full effort into making the change happen, putting the initiative behind schedule or derailing it completely.

Let’s say your change initiative aims to improve your customer service process. What does that mean? Improved how? Spell it out in quantifiable metrics, such as decreasing the order-processing period from five to two days, or increasing customer satisfaction by 30 percent. Be as specific as possible to make the future tangible.

3. Not giving employees the tools or capacity to change

In any organization, people are overloaded with daily responsibilities. Don’t bombard them with change, too. Make sure they have enough time and the skills needed to handle the change, as well as the right tools. If employees don’t have either, they’ll likely be stressed to the max. Don’t be surprised if you see some employee turnover as a result.

How to be supportive: If you ask your employees to use a new accounting system, for example, give them more than enough time to train on that system and become fluent in it. Effective change initiatives don’t happen overnight.

4. Not having an action plan

Do your employees know what to do next? No? If you don’t offer a detailed action plan, the change won’t happen. Getting to your destination is much easier if you have a step-by-step guide that serves as a map. Without a clear direction, your employees’ initial excitement will quickly subside, and your change initiative will go nowhere.

The solution: Get buy-in from key stakeholders, draft a plan of attack and share it throughout the company. Check in regularly to get status reports and see if the initiative is on track.

Progress is impossible without change

Change is inevitable and essential for growing organizations, but it can be scary. With the right communication strategies in hand, you can ease the transition for your employees and make the change stick.

To learn more tactics for enacting change, download our free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management.