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Don't Get Stuck in the Middle of Change

Dec. 23, 2019
Caught between the old and the new can create negative consequences for both employees and businesses. Here's how to minimize those impacts.

"Dad, I can’t do it that way. I have to do it this way,” my son insisted. “Why?” I mumbled. "This way is easier and faster.” And who on earth decided this was the way to solve math problems, I thought to myself. My mind flashed back to the '70’s and Mr. Krainer’s sixth-grade math class. Oh, how he drilled multiplication into our young minds!

Just a few minutes earlier my son had come out of his bedroom and asked for some help with his homework. He was trying to complete his math assignment using the common core math methodology, something I had heard of but was not familiar with. I read through his assignment and quickly dismissed this alien approach in favor of how I had done math along with every human being since the beginning of time. As my son watched me solve the problems the old-school way, he sighed and told me that he had to show his work using the common core math approach. My way wasn’t going to work. Now it was my turn to sigh and let out a Minnesotan “uffda” as I found myself caught between doing math the old way and learning and doing it the new way.

As I reflected on this situation later that week, I realized how often employees are caught in the middle of change, creating consequences for both the employee and the business. The business experiences a delayed or even lost return on investment. Optimistic employees get discouraged, pessimistic employees are content with the status quo, and the others are lost somewhere in between. Being caught in the middle impacts morale and eventually influences culture.

Why do we get stuck in this middle ground and how can we prevent or minimize the impact? Let’s first look at some contributing factors.

Optional Change

The perception that change is optional is typically tied to a lack of accountability. Employees quickly learn when it’s ok to ignore change in one of three ways: by following their supervisor’s lead of opting out, conforming to behavior of the majority (wait and see), or “testing” the system themselves to see if there are consequences for not changing. This is simply a leadership and management deficiency. Supervisors and managers are responsible for effectively and efficiently helping employees adopt and utilize the change.

Occasionally this can be a narrow problem that resides within a department or with an individual manager or supervisor. Unfortunately, usually it’s more broadly associated with an organization’s culture. While the narrow scope can be resolved in short order the cultural issues can take longer to overcome. When change is considered optional the path of least resistance is typically followed which means doing work the way that is known and comfortable.

Parallel Systems

Similar to optional change, parallel system change can leave employees with a choice to work in the new way or the old way because both are available to use. Or employees can find themselves having to work in the new way in certain situations and the old way in other situations. Either scenario can keep employees in limbo, which in turn delays desired outcomes.

There’s an often-overlooked risk when dual systems exist. The longer the old way is left in place the more likely employees will revert to it, especially in times of difficulty. In reactive organizations this can be exceptionally detrimental to achieving successful change. Time is of the essence in reactive environments. When people are under pressure, they tend to default to what they know because they have learned to work efficiently in this manner. Familiarization provides reassurance and that feeling can easily supersede adopting a change.

Defective Change

The best-designed solutions can still have unforeseen problems when put into practice, even those handled using an Agile approach. Solution overlaps, gaps and glitches, insufficient end-user training, deficient job instructions and processes, and ambiguous roles and responsibilities can leave employees stuck. When obstacles like these exist, employees tend to find a workaround or revert to the old way if it is still accessible. If the change is an addition, the change is simply left stranded. Just like the previous two contributing factors, defective change hinders employees’ ability to adopt and utilize the change.

Misaligned Performance Management System

When performance objectives and goals are not aligned with the change, employees will tend to work toward the measures that they are graded against. The change may be viewed favorably, it could be noticeably easier than how work is done today, and the benefits and outcomes could be compelling. But if the change and employees' performance goals are misaligned, the change will not be fully embraced. On the other hand, if the performance management goals are changed but the employee doesn’t have the ability to directly influence them, employees can be stuck in a fruitless and frustrating situation.

Personal Preference

A common form of employee resistance is choosing not to change. We typically refer to these employees as anchors or resistors. The reasons behind their resistance can include viewing the change as a loss, fearing the unknown, not being included in the design, or simply preferring the old and familiar to the new and different. Regardless of the root cause, resistors place themselves in between the new and the old way of working, disrupting peers and organizational outcomes.

Fortunately, these contributors are not permanent. They can be prevented with forethought, planning and action to overcome them. These and other contributing factors are all forms of project risk and resistance to change that you can address via traditional risk management methodologies.

Using proactive strategies to prevent people from getting stuck in the middle ground between old and new begins with analyzing the probability that the contributing factors I’ve described above will occur in the change your organization is planning. If warranted, develop risk response and control plans for the scenarios you expect may be problematic.

For example, if you think the change being perceived as optional may result in a delay or failure to achieve project objectives, establish activities early on to engage senior leaders and project sponsors. The goal of these activities is to create awareness for the need to ensure employees are held accountable. You may need to establish a specific communication and coaching campaign which cascades through the managerial ranks. This campaign will promote and reinforce the need for managers and supervisors to actively help employees adopt the change.

If you think the scenario of misaligned performance measures is likely to occur, plan to meet with the human resource department and senior leaders to adjust employee performance goals and daily management systems. The revised metrics should encourage adoption and connect the employee and the change with organizational objectives.

If you’re already in the middle of a change project, try to detect issues and respond to them as quickly as possible. Your change management or project management plan should include auditing and soliciting employee feedback. Depending on the change, waiting for lagging indicators could be costly. Early and regularly performed audits and surveys will reveal how well the change is being accepted and adhered to by employees. When deployed shortly after “go live,” audits and surveys can identify if employees are struggling with adopting the change due to solution defects or if they are regressing to a legacy system.

Throughout our lives we all experience moments of being caught in the middle. Whether at work, home or socially, these moments can impact relationships, performance and growth. Let’s use effective change management practices to minimize those times for our employees so they and the organizations they work for can reach their goals.

As principal consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, Jeff Nevenhoven develops solutions that align organizational systems, structures, controls and leadership styles with a company’s business vision and performance objectives. Jeff’s experience enables him to work effectively with employees throughout an organization to implement solutions that remove functional barriers and prepare and lead people through sustaining change. You can reach Jeff at [email protected].

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