A friend, who had been a nurse, started working in the healthcare practice at a large consulting firm. She’d been there about a year when we met for coffee at Starbucks.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “We’re going through an organizational change,” she explained.
“They called a headquarters meeting yesterday. The CEO stood up and said, ‘Our company is like a bus. We decided to go in a new direction to create more growth. This means you will need to learn how to do some things differently. Those who do will have opportunities to move to the front of the bus. Those who don’t will be left at the curb. At the end of the day, we’ll be asking if you’re ready to get on the bus.’”
Her eyes got big with worry. “I’m not sure I want to get on the bus!”
I couldn’t help replying, “What a lousy analogy. How many consultants at your company actually take a bus? You can bet the CEO doesn’t. I wish the bus would run over him!”
“People Hate Change” Is a Fallacy
Google “people resist change” and you’ll come up with an astounding number of articles, including from the Harvard Business Review. There are lists of ways they will fight it. But if you look for research on change aversion in psychology journals to back this up, you’ll hear crickets.
That’s because the opposite is true. When change and novelty mean something positive, our brains are all for it!
The technical term for this is “neophilia.” It’s considered one of the four basic kinds of temperament, along with award dependence, persistence and harm avoidance.
Don’t “Weasel Word” It
I think the last term is really the one we run into at work. Let’s face it. “Organizational change” often are the corporate-speak weasel words used because we’re too uncomfortable with calling things what they are.
It’s a “workforce rationalization” rather than a “layoff.” It’s a “restructuring” versus “we let our expenses get too high” (of which labor usually is the largest). And often it seems the people who led us into these sticky situations aren’t the ones who are affected.
Disingenuous leaders tell us something is good for us when we aren’t what they’re interested in. That’s too often reaching quarterly profits for public companies. Or trying to make up for an area that’s losing money. Or meeting the goals that determine executive bonuses.
It’s not change that people hate, but harm. Often this comes in the form of losing jobs, or working longer hours, or receiving unclear (or no) direction, or having fewer resources.
How Honest Are We Willing to Be?
Yes: there are times things go wrong—internally or in an industry or in the economy at large.
And yes: there are times we discover ways to be more efficient and do business in a better way.
As leaders, we need to be honest in our communications.
When we must counter a crappy situation, let’s admit our responsibility for this when we have it. (After all, it’s usually not a secret and people already know.) Don’t try to dress up an early retirement package as a way to promote from within—even though that may happen. People aren’t stupid—but leaders can look that way by pretending no one will notice.
What happens when those labor- or expense-saving opportunities arise, and it makes sense for the business to implement these? Then deal compassionately with the people who may soon be out of a job. Recognize their efforts and provide them with the resources to find their next position.
The best kind of change happens when leaders communicate the true “who, what, why, where, when and how” in a tough spot. This makes the people who leave feel respected and the ones who remain motivated to move the organization forward.
My friend? She got off the bus. The CEO? He found a higher paying job and got out before the bus crashed.