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Managing the human side of change

Nothing is forever. Change is the only constant. The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed. 

These are all terms we frequently hear. So if change is so much part of our lives, why do organisations keep getting it wrong? Surely they must be used to the change process by now?

From my experience, change so often seems to fail because we get the influencing so wrong. We often start with our own understanding of the change and often misunderstand what the change means and how it impacts on others. We can overlook the emotions created by change. Think of some recent changes of your own.

To help gain empathy with those who are or will be experiencing change, here’s a simple check list to use. This originates from the work of David Rock and is often cited as an example of neuroscience at work. The checklist is based on the research Rock curated on how our brains are naturally hard-wired to doubt or fear change so we feel we can survive.

Status. When faced with change, ask how the change will impact on the person’s status. This can be about hierarchy or may be how they are viewed and view themselves. Will the other person see himself or herself winning or losing as a result of the change? To implement change successfully, then look to safeguard status or enable the other person to adopt a new status that they will value.

Certainty. Very few of us value uncertainty. Therefore, look to understand what is it about the change that is uncertain for the other person. Don’t make assumptions – just because you know the plan and bigger picture it doesn’t mean that the other person does. The laws of physics tell us that a vacuum will be filled.  This includes being filled by communication and rumour. Look to inspire confidence in the other person and provide certainty when and wherever you can.

Autonomy. So often change is done to people rather than with people. They often see themselves as powerless victims of the change with few if any options to influence the outcome. When people are experiencing change then they like to have a say in what is happening and how things are happening. Look to involve people whenever and wherever you can to generate options. Enable them to make decisions where this can be done.

Relatedness. Often change results in old relationships being broken and new ones being formed. Change can have far reaching consequences for those involved. Work helps to meet social needs as well as financial ones. Therefore formal and informal networks will undoubtedly be impacted as the change takes hold. Make sure relationships are sustained and make every effort to include everyone. People can view innocent accidents, such as being left off an email distribution list or not being invited to a meeting, with undue cynicism as negative feelings take hold.

Fairness. In an adult-to-adult world where people recognise that change is a natural phenomenon, people want to be treated with respect, justice and fairness. Implementing change in a disrespectful, unjust and unfair way will only lead to resentment. There is much to be gained in making sure that change is implemented in a fair and equitable way. Make sure your communications, processes and procedures are as transparent as they can possibly be and stand up to scrutiny. Ensure that communications are received and fully understood.

As an acronym, the above checklist conveniently spells SCARF. Thinking about it, a scarf provides a good metaphor for managing change. Used properly, a scarf provides warmth and protection from a chill wind. Very often a scarf can also provide a statement about style too. However when used inappropriately, a scarf can be a distraction and even choke.

With or without the metaphor, managing the human side of change cannot be overlooked. Use the SCARF checklist to make sure you empathise with your people when experiencing change and avoid making, what could be, costly assumptions.

Paul Beesley, senior consultant, Beyond Theory

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