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Managing Organizational Change


Today’s rapidly changing technology; people working together from all over the world, representing different cultures, ages, genders, beliefs and work styles; the constant mergers and acquisitions among companies, upsizing, downsizing and resizing, political changes throughout the world; terrorism and the responses it has wrought; and natural disasters—which appear to be on the increase; have forced almost all of us to change, in some cases almost daily.

Adapting to new demands is an important mechanism for both personal and organizational survival. Individuals and groups that do it well seem to be more successful than those that resist and accept the inevitable slowly, if at all.

Those demanding change think all they need to do is explain the new process or needs. Those responding to it know full well it will take a great deal out of them to follow the new mandates. There is fear of the change itself, fear of looking ridiculous during the transition, fear of being different from those not being asked to make the changes, fear that you won’t be able to learn what you need to, fear of an inability to break old habits, reluctance to spend the extra time, and fear in general.

Thus change is so difficult it is almost always resisted. Changes in governments, corporations, and nonprofit organizations are even harder because the larger the organization, the greater the inertia and resistance to change.

Yet, no where is the need to change more visible—and manageable—than in the workplace, although the workplace itself has many other obstacles to change.

The workplace today employs people from many different cultures with varied expectations, beliefs, experience, and models for appropriate workplace behavior. Some of these employees grew up in climates demanding immediate obedience, conformity, and lack of independent thinking. Others lived in areas where they witnessed and/or were part of rebellion against authority and came to distrust those in authority. Age and gender issues also impact how people respond to the chain of command and authority. These differences in style, expectations and behavior also add to the problems of working effectively together and accepting necessary changes.

Given all these impediments, the minimum requirement for successful change is that upper management give it full support it with understanding, providing workshops, extra time, resources, training, and whatever else it takes to move the change forward effectively.

In addition, middle management must define, coach, and manage the process. Sometimes it requires making physical changes in the environment, re-arranging work loads, allowing temporary workers to take part of the burden from those trying to change. Most important—middle management must be motivating, encouraging, patient, and must reinforce the new behaviors and processes—frequently reminding itself of what it wants to accomplish.

Many ingredients are required to move from the present to the desired change. The process takes vision, role-modeling, symbols, reminders, extra time, and establishment of benefits to be gained for all involved. During the transition process additional motivators and training are required. Moreover, the organization must create an environment that fosters new learning and behaviors, allowing for the mistakes with punishment or ridicule—an environment that “persuades” employees to change.

This article focuses on some of the requirements for making organization changes in individuals, teams, departments, and divisions.
What Do We Want to Change?

Change within an organization takes many forms. Policies, procedures, processes, plans, procedures, systems, management strategies, forms, communication methods, new technologies and tools, vision, mission, values, performance appraisals, even the use of space—all need to be evaluated, updated and improved periodically.

Being managed from afar, working with distance teams, having to curtail previously common behavior (such as jokes, teasing, sexual innuendo), language and cultural differences in meetings and team members, tele-commuting, the manner in which meetings are managed are all change for which we must adapt.

Mergers and acquisitions not only demand cultural change, often they require shifts in management, and loss of employment for some or many who rely on employment for the survival of themselves and their families.
Who Do We Want to Change?

Today’s workforce consists largely of people called “knowledge workers.” They are highly educated and have far more flexibility in employment choices than previously possible. They will not accept commands. They need to be managed by persuasion and negotiation.

They want to be asked, to be included in the decision-making process, and they want to be properly rewarded for the inevitable emotional demands, as well as for the extra time and effort that will be needed to embrace the changes.

Even those in entry-level positions doing routine tasks expect to be treated with consideration and persuasion. In most parts of this country, and in many countries in the world, workers are protected from undue victimization. Too, the internet, e-mail, and the media have taught almost everyone in the world what it is reasonable to expect from their bosses. No longer can we use the whip style of management to effect change.
Organizational Culture

Remember too, that organizations, like countries, communities, religious groups, and families evolve into a solid culture with their own sets of beliefs and procedures. Each believes his way is the right and true way. Most often, when companies merge, through acquisition or mergers, there is difficulty absorbing and integrating the two cultures.

For example, one organization might consist of a methodical adherence to the chain of command, with all decisions coming from the top. Think of this as the farmers of the old west. Contrast this with the cowboys—people being empowered to make decisions on the spot without needing to go and get permission from higher authorities.

Many beliefs are below the level of consciousness and may not have been codified or made clear. The “unwritten rules” are often more powerfully influential than those that have been written. In other cases, procedures have become outdated, but because they have been habituated, they are still being used.

One classic example of old methods being retained even when new methods make them unnecessary comes from the manner in which checks are typically handled in finance departments. Prior to using computers, accounts receivable clerks would have to take two tapes. One of the deposit slip entries and the other of the checks themselves. This was the “check and balance” assuring no recording errors. Today, the deposit slip is computer generated with a total and the checks are endorsed with machines that note the amount and compute the total. Thus, there is no need for additional tapes. Yet, over and over again, when consulting into these departments, I notice that clerks are still taking at least one, if not both tapes.
Fear—What’s Going to Happen to Me?

We all react to change with a certain amount of anxiety. If the possibility exists that our job will be lost, that anxiety grows to full fledged fear, which, if left untreated causes personal and professional damage, not only to the person experiencing the fear, but often to all those around him or her.
The Starting Place

Your organization—through its documents, surveys, cultural assessments, observations and interviews with critical personnel both individually and in brainstorming-focus groups—must bring to the surface conscious and unconscious fears, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. The usefulness of these things must be evaluated, and modifications carefully developed by taking many factors into account, including the short- and long-term effects of the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors on other parts of the organization. A systemic approach to change is most important.

With the help of upper management, teams of change agents must be carefully selected and trained by experts. Simple “facilitation” will not be good enough. The training and the team processes will take time and patience, but will be well worth the effort in the long run, as the agents must engage people at every level of the organization in looking at procedures, processes, policies, and cultural beliefs. Further, they must do so in a manner that tells employees they need have no fear of repercussions from others.

Information must be communicated in a timely and honest manner—but with reassurances that those employees needing help will get the extra help they need.
Motivation Is Essential

Before they are really motivated to work at change, employees must be convinced of the personal and professional benefit to themselves, as well as to their organization. Management must also realize that work will slow during the transitional process. Often temporary help must be brought in or overtime authorized to help get the more mundane, everyday tasks accomplished. Having temporary help often is disruptive as well as anxiety producing to existing workers. Overtime has its own problems, including reducing the quality of life and balance for workers and their families. Unless properly motivated, there is resentment and resistance.

Learning is often awkward, requiring a great deal of practice before new habits are automated. Practice, of course, means making mistakes and taking time to correct them. Not only is it awkward, embarrassing, and anxiety provoking to make the mistakes—management must also accept this fact and be encouraging rather than insulting while suggesting the necessary corrections.
Vision and Mission—as Motivators for Change

Because of these factors, commitment is mandatory at the highest levels of the organization. Upper management in particular must create a clear, realizable and compelling vision. All too often, organizations develop vision statements that are too vague or idealistic, and so appear little more than a dream. The vision must have something people can buy into. It must be symbolized with a theme, slogans, symbols, and it must have its champions at the highest level of the organization.

Once realistic themes have been developed, upper management must create a mission, as well as goals and objectives, specific to individual departments, as what is required in one department may not make sense in another.

Management must next sell these missions, goals and objectives to members of the various departments through workshops and role-modeling. Management serves not only as role-model, but as motivators, mentors and reinforcers of the new values and behaviors.
Professional Tools and Techniques

Not only does it take professional techniques to create meaningful vision and mission statements, procedures and cultural changes require working with the latest tools of persuasion, negotiation, and methods of learning. Persuasion needs a user-friendly approach. Topics, or areas, of negotiation must be selected carefully. Learning new things must always be built on prior learning—and making changes must always be able to respectfully show how these changes will benefit more than “the way we’ve always done it.”

User-friendly, in this context, includes giving employees an opportunity to vent, to express their own ideas and to make mistakes. It means managers involved in the process must remain positive and approachable, and have an encouraging demeanor.

At this point in the change process, managers should coach and encourage rather than criticize or punish. Self-righteous, critical or condescending behavior will only frighten people back into their old tried-and-true behaviors.

In helping employees adapt to new conditions, managers must not assume an “I’m right, you’re wrong stance.” If they do, even in their facial expression, workers will immediately become defensive, fearful and tune the manager out. They will either become argumentative or passively resist the changes they are being asked to make.

To negotiate process, policy, or procedural changes, start with small things that have a great potential for success. This will help create a positive relationship with those being asked to change and it will increase the chances for success. The need to begin with small issues is why negotiation so often starts with the layout of the room and the shape of the table.

Since learning takes place incrementally, the new ideas must build on things already known and accepted. Like building blocks, or a ladder, new information must be connected to information already available. Pilot projects, as well as alpha and beta testing can often help make incremental changes acceptable.

By creating incremental behavioral objectives, management enables its employees to try things carefully and safely, and to feel good about their successes.

These stages of successful change in turn help create yet other opportunities for change. Success builds on itself. People become less afraid and more willing to try new things when they feel successful about the things they’ve already tried. It pays to reward the incremental changes, while at the same time encouraging the next stage desired.

Create internal champions from among those who are higher risk takers and more aware of the value of the new outcomes. They will be your role models and persuaders. Others will follow them more easily. Remember, there are always the innovators, the early adapters, and finally the followers.

In some cultures the internal champions must be selected from those who have the correct influence—such as the clan or family leaders who are internal and looked to by others.
Workshops Help

Part of the change process involves conducting team-building, brainstorming, focus groups, conflict resolution groups, process re-engineering or streamlining groups, and management development workshops to promote changes, get input on needs, deal with resistance, use peer pressure persuasively, and work with different management styles.

Keep in mind that people respond better to workshop exercises that have “face validity”—that is whose content is related to the work people actually perform. Most professionals resist slick, glib, cutesy, and touchy-feely exercises that seem to have no relevance to what they are being asked to accomplish.

Workshops should combine process and content. They need time. They should not be merely informational with one eye to the clock. Participants must be encouraged to learn more about each other as a means of building trust. They should be given content-specific task to perform together. This will enable them not only to improve their actual working conditions and move toward the desired process or cultural changes, but to work more effectively with each other in the future.

During the early stages of the workshops, future leaders and leadership teams should be identified. These individuals should become part of the development and intervention process. If possible, they should be working as team leaders-facilitators under the supervision of highly competent professionals.

Since they will facilitate and manage meetings that will be marked by heavy emotional content, fear and resistance to change, their selection and training will require a great deal of thought; observation of them in their natural work groups; and interviews that are not just for experience, but also for style and success in working in group process.

These future organizational leaders will require ongoing mentoring, coaching and training. (This is similar to the stages and requirements in building a Six Sigma organization.)

The leadership teams will evolve as methods of creating and reinforcing the changes as they are developed. One group, for example, might be a traveling road show to demonstrate the benefits of change, while another might coach lower level supervisors or managers. Yet a third team might develop programs to implement, measure and modify the desired changes.

These leaders will be an important part of the transition and will play a key role in solidifying the new ideas and behaviors in the early years.
Launching the Program

While smaller companies might be able to just dig in and start the process, in larger organizations it will be necessary to create some drama. Thus the firm might want to develop a large-scale kickoff program such as a Town Hall Meeting, involving as many people as possible. This all day affair should be exciting and motivational. It should encourage the participation and ideas of the attendees, who should be provided with a means of ensuring their ongoing involvement in the process.

For example, they could be included in task-force teams and provided with suggestions boxes, including electronic processes for making recommendations. Other vehicles for involvement might be newsletters, e-surveys, blogs, parties, focus groups, and ad-hoc committees.

Subcommittees should be formed to create symbols and tools; marketing and public relations materials; and change reinforcers. All levels of management should be trained in reinforcing the changes, managing differently and setting new goals and objectives. Their own managers should measure them according to their consistency in working with the needed reinforcers and other tools.
Resistance to Change Is Inevitable

As previously stated, most people resist change. Individual fears and concerns must be acknowledged and overcome respectfully without ridicule. Reasons for, and styles of, objecting vary and so must be dealt with individually. In many cases the first stage is denial, followed by anger, either over or passive resistance, possibly even depression and finally, acceptance of the inevitable.

Sometimes quiet individual counseling will help. Other times more training will be required. Informal peer acceptance and the concomitant pressure that brings often influences the person resisting change.

Occasionally someone who is actively fighting the change and offering destructive input to fellow workers will have to be separated from the process. If left alone, some resisters, could significantly hamper the acceptance of change by others. (Remember the homily: One rotten apple can spoil the barrel.)

Here again, workshops can help. People need an opportunity to vent, role-play and express their what-ifs and why-nots as part of the process of accepting and moving toward the required changes.

Throughout the process, keep in mind that most people want the best for everyone. Very few employees are truly malevolent. So work with the positives, and help workers go beyond the packaging of their complaints and demands and into the essence.

There is an old management training story about a fight over an orange. There is only one orange and two people both profess a need for it. With mediation, they realize that one needs the juice and the other the peel. This is a good example of getting to the essence of wants and needs. People must be helped to find mutual value in organizational change.
Dealing with Conflict

Just as resistance to change is inevitable, also inevitable will be conflict about the how and why and wherefores. Why me, or why not me is often a common cause of discontent, anger, and sometimes even trouble in work groups. If the conflict is among a few individuals, mediation and conciliation will most often lead to positive resolution. If the conflict is between large groups of people, more dynamic intervention is necessary.

Often the start of large group conflict is to separate the protagonists into affinity groups. The consultant works with these groups to help them vent and express their reasons for displeasure. Using group process tools, she works with them to create timelines, “tips of the iceberg” and other methods to get to the beginning or root causes of the conflict. Once emotions are calmed and logic starts to surface, these groups can develop strategies for change.

When working with these affinity groups, as I see them ready to move forward, I create a series of ad-hoc problem-solving committees and help individuals from different affinity groups self-select and join each other in one of the problem solving groups. In this manner, I have people who were at war working together to solve commonly agreed to problems.

This is usually followed by exercises for follow-up, large town hall meetings, and other methods designed to solidify the changes as well as the new alliances that have been formed from previously enemy cliques.
Alignment Is Necessary

Too often, alignment behind a company’s goals, objectives, values and beliefs is taken for granted. This is a fatal mistake.

I’ve often found different departments working at cross-purposes with each other. When alignment isn’t kept current, sometimes you have gaps in responsibility coupled with duplication of effort. Departments aren’t clear about their own responsibilities and boundaries.

Starting from the top, the highest levels within the organization must agree on the parameters, boundaries, values and desired cultural changes. Then they must communicate these and get a buy-in at all other levels of the organization. You must ensure that the words and slogans being used have the same meaning among all these levels.

Here’s a clear example of a great idea misaligned. Years ago, a large company co-founder and CEO developed what he called constructive criticism. He came from a Jewish background in which argument and disagreement were permissible, indeed desirable as a way of developing independent intellectual thought. He brought this active style of learning and decision-making to his company, where it was disseminated at all levels of the organization. Unfortunately, in the hands of some managers this type of criticism became a destructive exercise in ridicule, embarrassment and condemnation of select individuals. Constructive criticism meant different things to different managers. In bringing about change within your company, make sure everyone is aligned behind the meanings—and execution—of key words and processes.

In addition, middle management must be aligned with the new organizational changes and receive encouragement, rewards and recognition. If necessary, upper management should impose negative sanctions on those who don’t work positively and consistently to meet the new goals.
Lessons Learned

Most companies learn the hard way how best to bring about change. You might avoid a good deal of trouble by keeping in mind the following two lessons others have learned through trial and error.

1. The transition to change must be managed over a long period of time. People will pay lip service to the change, but revert back to their old manner of doing things almost immediately without constant reinforcements. This is called “regression to the mean.” Statistics suggest that only 12 percent of people actually embrace change and adopt new behaviors. The balance regress to their old way of doing things. So allow the time, extra resources and encouragement needed to institute change. Symbols, signs, surveys, handouts, small group meetings, workshops and other reinforcers are vitally important to the process even if some seem corny at first.
2. Some supervisors and managers, particularly those at a comfortable level of mid-management, will be the most self-protective and resistant to change, to which they will pay only lip service. These are the most self-serving safety conscious, only concerned with building their empires, protecting their positions, and retiring as a manager with benefits. If these managers do not accept and embrace the desired changes, they will sabotage them. Therefore they must be won over or reassigned.


When all is said and done, change can be exciting and, if managed correctly, a vital component in the vitality and continued growth of an organization. So, go for it!

ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D
Diamond Associates 3567 Benton St., #315, Santa Clara, CA 95051

ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D. has been a consultant to management and business for over twenty years. She excels at quickly cleaving to the essence of a problem, and helping her clients find practical, realizable and useful solutions. Dr. Diamond is a noted author, public speaker, educator and consultant.
Consultant to Management
Helping You Get the Most out of Yourself and Others
Author of Training Your Board of Directors &
The "Please" and "Thank You" of Fundraising for Non-profits.
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