“We need change management!” is the cry I hear most frequently these days from both HR and C-Suite decision makers looking for training.

When I ask about the context, they typically want their tired and emotionally spent employees to accept more changes, work harder, and enthusiastically accept whatever is being created at a higher level – and this without having spoken to them first or clarified any clear benefit to the employees themselves.

How would you react to that kind of request? I’m guessing it would be with a fair amount of indignation and pushback. Often when employees are not happy with something, people who know little about their jobs make a judgement on their character or work ethic before finding out what employees are experiencing.

Human beings tend to assume we already know what people should be doing, and if they don’t behave the way we would expect, we conclude with statements like: “they just don’t care about their job” or “they don’t want to get results” or “they are used to being lazy”. How do you know? How do you know you know? Are you SURE you know you know?

These are the questions to start with get to the real reason someone is not doing the job you expect them to do, or not embracing a change you consider easy. Which brings us to the first phase of change management – prepare the change management ground so it is fertile and receptive. Here are the steps!

Change management principle #1: Start with you

Ask yourself what you know and how you know it. Gather your data and figure out where it came from. Be curious about your own inner process and check that you have real data to back up both the idea, the process and how you think people will receive it. If what you know is a “hunch” or an “assumption” or if you discover there are holes in your data (which there will be unless you are a god), then go straight to this important guiding principle…

“The expert is always the person closest to the job.” Share on X

Change management principle #2: Find out directly from the source

Speak with sincere interest and curiosity with the people involved in the job affected by the upcoming change. Find out what they have been experiencing. Ask what they would do differently. Find out what they don’t know or have assumptions about. The caveat is that answers starting with “management should…” or “the night shift should…” are not acceptable. Ensure you get answers to these three questions:

Question 1: “What would you do differently? Why?” This orients individuals to think about their own behaviour first.

Question 2: “What do you think the team could do differently to get better results?”. Take notes, it will be useful.

Question 3: “What kind of management support would be most effective to get to those results?” Stay humble and check any feelings of defensiveness to stay open.

These three questions provide you with the individual experience, what the individual would do differently given the opportunity, what the team, once unified around a central purpose, can do as a unit, and what support and accompaniment management could provide in the process.

The reason ground preparation for change management is so critical is because nobody likes change that is “done to them”, but when they participate in the process and contribute knowledge and experience to inform and build the process, they become open to change. They know that everyone is helping enrich the soil collectively.

more compassionate to employees

Change management principle #3: Calm the nervous system

Openness to change is like trust – it is easily broken and has to be maintained.

People have nervous systems which cause them to react to things. At any moment, when a nervous system senses danger, it clicks into reaction mode. The reaction will likely be: freeze, flee, get ready to fight, or get ready to fawn (meaning trying to appease the person you see as dangerous). There is nothing you can do to stop this reaction. It is a biological reality. BUT there is something you can to do calm it.

  1. Explain what you know, the why, what and how of the change: Information helps people to feel safe
  2. Acknowledge feelings: Say something like “If this were me I would probably be feeling anxious right now”. If it is false, someone will correct you and say what they are really feeling. If it is correct they will either show agreement or explain a bit more. Be careful not to dismiss their feelings in that moment, because if you do, you lose both their trust and openness to change.
  3. Explain what you don’t know and how you will continue to check in with them to make sure you get their input to learn more as required: Letting others know that you are working on the issue and that there are time points when you will be checking back for more intel helps maintain both trust and openness.
  4. Give a “let’s try this” date range: This shows you are piloting the idea with a beginning and end point: people are much more likely to want to buy into a change when they know there is a trial period with a start, a finish, and that a further decision will be made after that time.
  5. Let people know that you are open to making changes: As new information becomes available adjust accordingly. If you can’t make changes, it won’t work to hold that expectation for others.
  6. Explain the long term benefits to this change, and what the pilot stage will feel like: No change is painless and people will not believe you if you say “this will be easy”. They have to see a light at the end of the tunnel to be willing to commit, even to the short term. Be honest. There will be pain in the short term – confusion, things that don’t work, frustration are typical. Adjustments will need to be made to the system and to help people use the system to ensure success and satisfaction.

Let’s recap. For this Phase One of change management, preparing employees to be receptive requires: questioning your own assumptions and data, gathering information from those most affected by the change, and maintaining trust and openness with basic nervous system reassurance steps to ensure they continue to believe your sincere interest in them as people in this process.

The next phase will be dealing with resistance and building commitment and accountability. However if you have missed these ground fertilization steps, be prepared to experience struggle and resentment not only in phase one, but in all subsequent phases of the change initiative. As any gardener knows, preparation is the most important step to having a good harvest and continually enriching the soil of trust and openness are key to success.

In conclusion, before making any significant change to a process, group or attitude, first prepare the ground by ensuring you have:

  1. Gathered insights from the people who will be carrying out and/or be on the receiving end of the change.
  2. Provided them with information about why the change matters, what you know, don’t know and what the long term benefits will be for them. Don’t sugar coat the change process – let them know about the likely pain and show concretely how you will support them through the process, checking in at specific time points. Ensure that this includes a pilot process with a start and end point where their insights will be gathered again.
  3. Demonstrated willingness to make changes to your idea and processes. People are much more likely to respond positively to a new and potentially nervous-system triggering change, if they see your personal openness to change, and your willingness to make adjustments as new information becomes available.

There you have it folks! Follow these rules of engagement to prepare the ground for a successful change management process! Stay tuned for the next article on dealing with resistance and increasing commitment and accountability.

About the Author

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO, Shift Management specializes in helping employers train their supervisors to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and coach for emotionally regulated performance. She has a background in integrating and managing the diverse workforce and in creating culturally responsive curriculum courses and programs for industry. Marie’s book, “The Spirit of Work: Timeline Wisdom, Current Realities” to understand the deeper processes behind workplace issues and find inroads into creating healthy and vibrant organizations is available on Amazon and other online book stores.

Contact Marie to talk about your training and coaching needs!