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Successfully Lead Through Major Organizational Change

By Gary Bradt

Today, companies get bought and sold at a dizzying rate, and reorganizations happen like clockwork. These changes are usually made with the best of intentions but unfortunately don’t always end up with the intended results. That’s because leaders pay attention to the logical aspects of the process, i.e. the business case, but not nearly enough attention to the psychological aspects, i.e. just how do we get people to enthusiastically embrace this new entity and/or new way of doing business? Following are five keys to meeting this challenge.

1. Accept that in the eyes of employees, a merger of equals rarely occurs. The standard line from senior management is that “there are no winners and losers” when two organizations come together. Employees, however, usually see it differently. They notice things like which name the new company adopts, and how many “legacy” executives from each company end up in similar roles on the new executive team. Like it or not, employees keep score, and their initial feelings toward all the changes going on often depend on their final tally.

As a leader, rather than arguing this point, you are much better off accepting it, and then developing strategies and tactics to offset any negative perceptions. For example, as much as possible balance the new team with executives from both legacy companies/divisions/etc. Certainly the best-person-for-the-job should always be your primary criteria, but in the special case of a merger or reorg, a perception that both sides get representation is important to consider too.

When meeting with employee groups, acknowledge your desire to make it a merger of equals, but that you understand some may be skeptical, and that’s okay. Ask them to judge you and the process on what they see, not what they may pick up via the rumor mill. Let them know you will promote and support employees based on skill set and attitude going forward, regardless of which group they were affiliated with originally. By doing this, you will begin setting the expectations and reaching those who are willing to give this change a shot if properly led.

2. Go out of your way to get to know new people. It’s easy to stick with the people you know, but the best executives make a point of getting to know the talents, skill sets and personalities of those coming in from the new organization. You never know where hidden talent may lie, and it’s up to you to find it. Don’t rely on rumor, individual reputations, or even HR. As much as possible, spend time face to face inside and outside the office with potentially key people. Find out what makes them tick; their values, their work ethic; how they think and make decisions. Make your assessments based on direct experience as much as possible.

3. Post merger especially, pay attention to the psychological, not just the logical aspects of change. Pre-merger activity is filled with logical analysis. Everything from geographies, facilities, technical expertise, market share, and supply chain logistics are gone over with a fine toothcomb, as indeed they should. Often, the ‘soft’ side of the deal, i.e. culture and people, gets short shrift. After all, it’s hard to get stuff like that on a spreadsheet; if you can’t graph it, you can’t analyze it, the thinking seems to go. So what’s the point? The point, of course, is that all of your finely honed analysis will come to naught if you don’t get people to act in accordance with your logical assumptions once the deal goes through. Ignore the soft side of the deal and you run the risk of watching your logical plans sink into a psychological swamp, swallowed up by employee fear and resistance.

To avoid this outcome, actively involve people in making the change happen as much as possible. Get them so busy in meaningful activity around executing the change they don’t have time to worry or complain about it. Getting them involved on teams and focus groups will not only help you make better decisions (after all, they know their day-to-day business better than you do) but employee buy-in and commitment to decisions will increase.

4. Be honest: Share what’s in it for them, both the good and the bad. This point is so basic it’s often overlooked. Leaders assume people will naturally see the inherent benefits of change, or they emphasize aspects employees care little about. For example, to tout the benefits of the change to stockholders is all well and good, but will do little to calm the fears of employees who may feel threatened by what the change portends for their personal welfare.

Make sure you can clearly and easily articulate how benefits will accrue to those employees who embrace the change. At the same time, be honest about the potential downside: if the change will result in some pain and sacrifice (loss of jobs, positions, or a change in geography, for example) be up front about that too. Early on in any change process the same question is paramount on people’s minds: ‘What is this change all about and how will it impact me?’ Until you adequately answer those questions, anything else you share will be tuned out, or worse, misinterpreted as fulfilling employees’ worst fears and expectations.

5. Passion plus patience equals long-term success: It’s normal for senior executives in the power seats, those actively involved in making decisions up and down the line, to feel more passionate about change. After all, they have been actively involved from the get go, can see the benefits and how it can work long-term, and feel personally invested. For many of the rest, they can feel as if they are just along for the ride, sometimes on a journey they did not ask for, nor necessarily agree with. They may have heard the rumors but have felt powerless up till now to do anything about it.

Let patience be your guide. If you follow some of the steps outlined above, i.e. get people involved in the change, tell the truth about where you are headed, why you are going there and ask for their help along the way, most will get on board.

A Final Word: For many executives analyzing the business case, putting the strategic and tactical pieces together, and getting the deal done constitutes the easiest and most fun aspect of leading major organizational change. Such ‘left-brain’ activities define their comfort zone. Less comfortable perhaps is the people part - addressing the emotions and the needs of employees whose buy-in you need to succeed. However, it must be done. Being a leader of change means sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone to help employees re-establish theirs.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Gary Bradt.  

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