Change agents are responsible for coaching people during times of change. As part of this role we need to be able to empathize with their perspectives and take time to help them through their problems. The most effective change agents listen, respond, and often read between the lines.
Whether you’re new to the change agent role, or a seasoned veteran, make sure to seek out two distinct categories of people – those who welcome change and those who are keen to play a helpful role within the change process.
However, it’s equally important to seek out people who are resistant to change. It’s part of the job as “change agent” to ease the path for those who resist it.
As you seek these people out, beware of seven common target reactions to change and see our strategies for dealing with them:
- Reaction: Feeling anxious about the change and self-conscious about not knowing the new way
Strategy: Acknowledge this is a legitimate reaction and assure the targets that they will be given any training that they need to enable them to perform well in the desired state. Take the targets step-by-step through their new roles, patiently explaining their job descriptions. If you are offering in-house training sessions, speak to the trainers and ask them to be sympathetic to the targets’ particular difficulties and needs.
- Reaction: Thinking first about what might have to be given up, not what might be gained
Strategy: Don’t try too hard initially to sell the benefits of the desired state: instead begin by acknowledging the value the old order provided in the past. Then convey the view that to stay healthy it’s important to respond to changing conditions. And you could stress one new gain in particular, which easily outweighs whatever is lost: the knowledge that your organization will be stronger because it has changed.
- Reaction: Feeling isolated, even if everyone else is going through the same change
Strategy: Structure group activities around the change, to cement cooperation and a sense of shared purpose. For example, you could hold a group session to define more precisely some of the blurred edges of the desired state. Ask people to produce diagrams or charts showing possible ways in which new elements of the desired state will fit with each other and with old elements. Encourage people to discuss these different models and debate their pros and cons with a view to agreeing on consensus.
- Reaction: Tune out the change because there have been so many before
Strategy: Be clear in your management, concentrating on landmark stages. Go through the timeline for the change, emphasizing key dates and deadlines. Share summaries of the timeline so that everyone knows what will happen and when.
- Reaction: Being more – or less – open to change than others
Strategy: Recognize that some people are risk-takers, some take a balanced view, and others are cautious. With risk-takers, beware of their underestimating the difficulties of the challenge: talk them through all the stages of change, encouraging them to focus on anticipated situations. With the cautious ones, try to establish what specific concerns they have and address them patently and constructively.
- Reaction: Feeling they lack enough resources for change, such as enough time
Strategy: Even the best planned times of change may cause stress on its targets. They may overestimate the difficulties of their roles and feel that what they are being asked to do isn’t possible within the time allotted. If this is the case, go back to the timeline and help these targets understand the timeframe.
- Reaction: Returning to the old way
Strategy: Work to weave the new order into the organization’s culture – for example, its approach to reward. Symbolic changes, such as redecorating the office, or upgrading furniture and equipment, can help. Prioritize actions that reflect the new order. Remember that as a manager, if you think in terms of the new current state, staff will find it impossible to communicate with you effectively unless they think in those terms too.