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Career Coach: A key element of successfully managing change

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By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, September 13, 2010

Writers of books on change have often written about the importance of people having choices when change comes to their lives. And yet, leaders often do not act on that knowledge. They continue to dictate what types of changes will occur, when they will take place, who is involved and how things should be done. While I understand and fully appreciate the value of structure and order in the world, I am beginning to wonder, does everything have to be structured and ordered?

What made me think about how little we allow for choice was watching all the kids going back to school. I noticed that children really get the short end of the stick in terms of having choices. Parents and educators seem to feel they don't need any -- or that they need very little -- choice in things that affect them. At home, parents often tell their kids when to eat, what to wear, what camps to attend, what sports to sign up for, and the list goes on and on. Every part of their day is structured, from their school experience to their playtime. When they arrive at school, they are told what to do from the time they get there to the time they leave. Of course, most of this makes sense since parents and educators must maintain order and control. But does everything have to be structured for them?

Before you think I am against structure, let me assure you that I personally thrive on structure and I, too, am guilty of over-structuring and over-controlling everything and everyone in my sphere. Anyone who knows me would readily agree. And yet I also teach seminars on creativity and work with companies to become more innovative. I listen to employee complaints about all of the micro-managers in their lives. As I work with people in the Gen Y group, I see how they are revolting against mandated change. Maybe it's from years and years of over-structured lives from their families and schools. So I am as conflicted about this issue as many of you might be. I do, however, think there are some ways to implement change to make it more successful.

Prepare people for the possibility of change. Recently, I reread the book "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson and realized what a great story this really is for preparing anyone of any age for change. In fact, there are versions of the book written for children and for teenagers. I have also worked with companies that had "lunch and learn" sessions in which they used the book to get a team ready for change. Whatever resource you use, the point is that you need to get people thinking about the possibility of change on the horizon.

Tell them what has changed and what is staying the same. I once saw the chief operating officer of a large sales company do exactly this. In a town hall type meeting, he described for the sales staff what was going to change and what was going to stay the same in their job duties, compensation, workload, etc. It was one of the most effective efforts I have ever seen in helping people come to grips with a change program because it enabled the salespeople to have some comfort in knowing that not everything was going to be different.

Use the right language and tone. Using a dictator type tone ("you must do this or else") might get people to do something to avoid getting in trouble, but does it really teach them why it's important to do something? And who is your audience? Once again, just because you're dealing with people who are younger than you doesn't mean you have to adopt the authoritarian approach. Explanations and logic often work.

Give them some choice. Leaders need to really think about what elements of any change must be structured and where there can be choices. Allowing for choice enhances people's potential buy-in to the change. Aren't there parts of the program that they can have some choice in?

Finally, when you get ready to implement your next change, take some time to think about how you present the change and what choices you can allow. Remember, everyone needs to feel a sense of control, not just the person in charge.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.


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