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How 'They' Undermine Change

March 12, 2019
Optional change doesn’t deliver. It takes longer, costs more and doesn’t provide the return on investment.

I recently listened in as a manager introduced a change to his employees. The manager began by explaining what the change was and how the change would help address their department’s needs along with supporting the big-picture corporate change initiative. While the change wasn’t complex, it was going to put a spotlight on this group and command higher levels of accountability. This was a change that management knew would not be well perceived by employees who, for years, had been able to fly under the radar and do their own thing. The manager had nicely set up the intro and was at a place to position himself as a believer and champion of the change. But then, as quickly as his message started, it died as he said, “they want you to change.” The inaudible sigh of relief in the room was deafening.

We have all been there. We have sat in the chair listening to that word and thinking “whew, my manager just gave me an out.” Or we have stood in front of the group speaking that word while deflecting responsibility because we didn’t want to get blamed or simply because we did not really believe in the change. “They” is a seemingly innocent but powerful four-letter word that can quickly and concisely undermine our change leadership stature.

When you or I use the word “they,” we are sending the unspoken message that this isn’t my change, I don’t believe or agree with it, I don’t own it, and if you don’t do it I probably won’t say or do much unless they get after us about it. But what happens when they do get after us about it? Employees resist, and we wonder why. When we deflect responsibility and or change sponsorship, we are communicating that change is optional. Optional change doesn’t deliver. It takes longer, costs more and doesn’t deliver the return on investment.

The next time you are in a position to introduce change, communicate it and demonstrate it with ownership. There are two roles that employees look to more than any other role during change: the person in charge at the top of the organization, and you, their direct supervisor. While you can’t control how the senior leader conveys their support of the change, you do have direct control over your own behaviors. Your words and actions communicate what you believe about the change. Employees watch their supervisors very closely to see if they are sincere, consistent and involved. When they see these behaviors, they are much more likely to accept and apply the change themselves.

What if you are not on board with the change? Do you put up a false front? Do you simply go through the motions? You could but chances are you will slip, and employees will detect the truth. It is better to approach your manager and work through any resistance you have prior to initiating change. Remember, you too are an employee who must transition through the change.

We tend not to give our employees enough credit. Be real, be authentic and own the change.

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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