How-To's For Leading Workplace Change

April 11, 2002
A national survey of over 5,000 mid-to-upper level managers found that most are actually very open to change, belying the widely\r\nheld belief that people tend to resist changes in the workplace.\r\n

A national survey of over 5,000 mid-to-upper level managers found that most are actually very open to change, belying the widely held belief that people tend to resist changes in the workplace.

Conducted by Discovery Learning, a developer of training products used in Fortune 500 companies, the survey also reveals strategies for successful change management.

The survey placed respondents on a continuum between "Conserver" and "Originator," with "Pragmatist" in between. According to survey developer Dr. Chris Musselwhite, "originators" welcome dramatic change, while "conservers" are more comfortable with gradual change, and "pragmatists" are most enthusiastic about change that will address current circumstances.

Not surprisingly, most individuals are a blend of Conserver-Pragmatist or Pragmatist-Originator. Of the entire population surveyed between 1996 and 2001, 52 percent of managers (57 percent were men and 43 percent were women) scored in the Pragmatist range, 26 percent in the Originator range and 22 percent in the Conserver range.

"Americans are attracted to innovation, so we think being an originator is best," says Musselwhite, who is also president and CEO of Discovery Learning. "But it takes all of these personality types to build a successful business."

A case in point is Enron, says Musselwhite. "Conservers at Enron tried to warn of problems, but the leadership culture was apparently skewed so much toward originators charged with ''reinventing business'' that conservers were viewed as resisters and were either silenced or ignored," he notes.

So what bottom-line advice does the Change Styles Survey offer managers charged with leading change? Key findings include:

One change does not fit all. Knowing how team members are likely to react to change takes some of the guesswork out of communicating the change and leading people through it. "You have to be gradual and clear with Conservers, who are most concerned with the details of implementing the change," says Musselwhite. "You win the Pragmatists over when they can see how the change will positively address current circumstances. And you may have to reel in the Originators, who welcome dramatic change and sometimes move too fast for other team members'' comfort."

There are two kinds of resisters in the world. Sometimes the biggest objections to change come from people most devoted to the company. Hearing their concerns may head off problems you didn''t anticipate. But Musselwhite warns some employees and managers are "hard core" resisters. "You want to be able to tell the difference," explains Musselwhite. "If someone''s simply a conserver who''s seeing red flags, you can benefit from their insights. They''ll feel like their concerns have been heard and will be more ready to move forward. But hard core resisters will fight the change no matter what." The danger is in treating every skeptic as a hardcore resister; you risk breeding alliances between these two groups that could further stall the change.

Who is really on board? Not getting stumped by different change styles frees managers to focus on how well individuals are aligned with the goals of the organization. "People may resist change on an emotional level," says Musselwhite. "It might have nothing to do with the change itself, but with territorial issues, problems at home, etc." Originators can cause problems on the other extreme - wanting to move too fast or in too many directions. In some cases, there''s no way to get these people to work at a pace that''s best for the organization, and you have to let them go.

The survey found that men (28 percent) are more likely than women (23 percent) to be Originators. And women (27 percent) are much more likely to be Conservers than men (17 percent). "This may be due to women being more mindful of the implications of change, rather than being less open to change in general," says Musselwhite.

  • Among industries, communications had the highest percentage of Pragmatists (71 percent) and the lowest percentage of Conservers (11 percent). Petroleum had the lowest number of Originators (4 percent).
  • Among professions, soldiers (46 percent), school principals (42 percent) and business consultants (40 percent) had the highest percentage of Originators. The lowest percentage of Originators were security/police (3 percent), support staff (8 percent) and bankers (12 percent).
  • Among age groups, there are a substantially higher percentage of Originators among "Baby Boomers" (born 1946-1965) than among earlier "Post War and Depression" generations (born 1928-1940) or the later "Gen X" generation (born 1966-1981). Over 33 percent of Boomers were Originators, compared to 26 percent of Gen X-ers and 26 percent of Post-War/Depression generations.

"The bottom line: the more aware people are of their co-workers'' change styles, the better they work together, which improves business performance," says Musselwhite.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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