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The bridge less traveled
Changing how staff feels about change

In the 50s and 60s, I loved eating at lunch counters, particularly those in Walgreen drug stores. So many people agreed with me that the lunch counter was Walgreen’s number one profit center. But Charles Walgreen shocked his management team when he announced, “We will be out of the food service business in five years.” His board might have been confused, but Walgreen clearly understood that what got him where he was would not get him where he wanted to be.

Walgreen recognized a newcomer positioned to radically change how people eat out: McDonald’s. Charles Walgreen committed his company to change before change was needed. In place of food service, he saw the market around the corner was pharmaceuticals. Charles Walgreen chose a risky decision; but an even riskier decision would have been doing nothing. He understood change is the bridge that takes us from where we are to where we’ve never been. Unfortunately, it is the bridge less traveled.

People really don’t resist change. People resist the unknown. Successful change management leads staff along seven milestones along the journey across the bridge named “Change.”

Milestone #1 – Purpose

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.” — Jack Welch

Purpose ultimately sells change to staff. The reason to change is that the timing is right, and change is needed to pursue the agency’s vision. Unfortunately, owners often introduce change in the following ways.

  • “I found a better way to do business.”

  • “You are doing great but could do so much more.”

  • “If we are going to grow the agency, then we need to change what we do.”

Staff interprets value words such as “better” as management saying, “You have not done enough.” If change is perceived as a spotlight on their imperfections, staff will push back every time. Once that perception is set in place, it’s extremely difficult to remove. Use the following explanations as you begin your journey across the bridge to explain why change is important and achieve the first milestone: “Purpose.”

  1.  “The purpose of change is not fixing the past but preparing for the future.”
  2.  “Everyone does a great job. We are taking this journey across the bridge called ‘Change’ so we can get there before our competition.”
  3. “As a leader, one of my most important jobs is seeing around the corner to understand what’s coming next.”

Milestone #2 – Direction

“Directions are instructions given to explain how. Direction is a vision offered to explain why.” — Simon Sinek

If staff resists change, it’s because they lack a clear understanding of what waits for them on the other side.

Crossing the bridge named “Change” requires leaders with the courage to know where they are going and why. If leaders have no idea where they’re going or how to get there, they aren’t leading. They’re just out for a walk. When Charles Walgreen took that bold step over four decades ago, he didn’t close lunch counters without a plan for how to replace them. Agency owners often point to lack of time as the reason for failing to discover what’s coming next and develop a change management strategy to get there. But staff deserves a vision of the other side that inspires their knowledge, heart and imagination. If staff resists change, it’s because they lack a clear understanding of what waits for them on the other side. Follow these action steps to achieve the milestone “Direction.”

  1. Paint a mental picture of what it looks like on the other side.
  2. Remind staff that what they gain is more valuable than what they will lose.
  3. Focus on how you plan to get to the other site.

Milestone #3 – Credibility

Credibility is the foundation of leadership. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message.” — James Kouzes, “Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It”

I have worked with hundreds of agency owners in the past 13 years and discovered staff often distrust management. Their lack of trust is not belligerent or mean-spirited. Staff’s lack of trust is rooted in three behaviors they perceive from owners:

  • Owners “stop” and “stop” a lot.
  • Owners lack have a clear vision and purpose.
  • Owners are not willing to be responsible for changing first.

According to a 2011 Maritz study, when an organization establishes strong management trust, 50 percent of employees looked forward to coming to work every day, and 58 percent said they were very satisfied with their job. On the other hand, organizations with weak management reported that only 3 percent of employees looked forward to coming to work every day, and 4 percent said they were completely satisfied with their job (Maritz White Paper, January 2011).

Follow these action steps to achieve the milestone “Credibility.”

  1. Be the first person to change.
  2. Be prepared to offer staff a clear reason for change as well as explain why you believe change is in the best interest of the staff, agency and customers.
  3. Resist the impulse to make changes that could or should be made later.

Milestone #4 – Communication

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!”  Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”

Several years ago, I worked with Bob, the son of the owner of a medium-size manufacturing company. I met Bob when I was asked to conduct employee surveys for the company. Bob is a great guy—who chose to launch significant change with a total lack of communication.

Effective change management happens when people understand why, what and when change will take place.

Bob’s factory followed a basic assembly-line model moving parts through design, fabrication, painting and finally quality control. His new “cluster” plan reorganized employees and equipment in a group that included design, fabrication, painting and quality control. It was actually a good idea. But here is how Bob handled this life-altering change.

Beginning Friday night and ending late Sunday night, Bob brought in workers who moved every piece of equipment. He reassigned employees to create the cluster. He chose not to communicate with his foreman or any of the employees. Everyone came back to work on Monday morning to a completely different and foreign workplace, including his foreman and mid-management. Needless to say, this change was not welcomed or accepted.

Effective change management happens when people understand why, what and when change will take place. Since people have different ways, or languages, of communication, it is important to communicate in writing, action, announcements and feedback.

Follow these action steps to achieve the milestone “Communication.”

  1. Put everything in writing.
  2. Review what is waiting on the other side of the bridge at every staff meeting.
  3. Ask staff to tell you in their own words their understanding of where you are going and why.

Milestone #5 - Transparency

In the military, they give medals to people who sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, they give bonuses to people who sacrifice others so that they may gain.” — Simon Sinek

By the time the journey is half over, staff begins to realize they are approaching the point of no return, the point where they weigh the workplace they know against the workplace they believe waits on the other side. They decide if they can rely on the leader to be truly transparent in how and where they are leading. Transparency means creating a place to work that is free from hidden agendas, special interests, surprise turns and emotional blowouts when someone fails.

Transparency means that owners and management demonstrate their commitment to do what is in the best interest of their staff.

Transparency means change begins with you, and you live the change so that everyone in your agency can see it.

Transparency means everyone in the agency feels safe to be open, honest and imperfect.

Simon Sinek describes this workplace as having a “circle of safety.” According to Sinek, “When people feel safe, they trust and cooperate. When they don’t, they waste time and energy defending themselves from each other.” An amazing example is a story about the CEO of IBM, Thomas John Watson Sr.

Watson Sr. was an extraordinary business executive who received the posthumous title of “World’s Greatest Salesman” after his death in 1956. In an extraordinary conversation, Watson commented on a recent costly failure of an employee. His response is inspiring:

“Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” Staff deserves to feel how much you understand their reluctance to change. Feelings follow knowing. Respect is seeing someone for who they are, not for who you want or need them to be.

Follow these action steps to achieve the milestone “Communication.”

  1. Be honest about how you feel about change, including your reluctance to change.
  2. Use failure as the opportunity to recognize effort and challenge growth.
  3. Give staff the freedom to express how they feel about change.

Milestone #6 - Recognition

The first and most important thing staff need and deserve is to be praised for who they are rather than for what they do for the agency.” — Tom Baker 

Recognition is more than complimenting performance. Recognition is recognizing the effort, failures and value an individual brings to the agency. According to a Gallup poll, recognized employees have:

  • 37 % less absenteeism and turnover
  • 21 % higher productivity
  • 22 % higher profitability
To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money.

Researchers at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan reported, "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money.” Research also shows that simple actions such as telling staff, “You are appreciated” or recognizing an individual as “Employee of the Month” releases the hormone Oxytocin, which creates a feeling of connectedness, belonging and warmth between individuals and coworkers.

Follow these action steps to achieve the milestone “Recognition.”

  1. Engage with staff in interpersonal conversations that include rich, honest dialogue.
  2. Ask staff their opinions about how to grow your agency and improve on change.
  3. Offer a genuine, heartfelt “Thank you” or “Well done.”
  4. Recognize achievements and effort in staff meetings.

Milestone #7 – Change is part of change.

If you don’t like change then you’re going to really hate extinction.” — Ross Shafer

As staff prepares to step off the bridge, true leaders understand the importance of planning for future change. Roll out change in small, manageable and measurable segments, then let staff know that evaluating change is a part of the process. For example, “We are moving toward a new way of doing business, and it is important to make sure the change is achieving the goals we want. We will plan times along the way to confirm we are on the right track, fine-tune the process and determine if any changes are needed.” Making change a part of the change process increases credibility and eases staff’s fear of the unknown.  

Follow these action steps to achieve the final milestone, “Change.”

  1. Schedule a date on the calendar in 90 days to review changes.
  2. Create a Review Board of staff with specific results to measure to evaluate the effectiveness of what has changed.

Once across the bridge, the journey is just beginning, and it’s not the last time you will stand on the other side of the bridge. Change truly is the only constant. The more it is practiced, the more beneficial and even fun change can become.


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