Managing Organisational Change

Many government agencies are currently dealing with workforce issues around transition, outplacement and mobility. How do you take these changes in your stride and make sure that everyone involved is along for the ride? And what of your duty of care to your people?

If you are about to embark on transition activities within your organisation, there are several things to consider before you proceed.  Whether it be one person, or hundreds, there are essential steps to the transition journey to ensure the best outcomes for the individual, your workforce and your organisation as a whole.

Here are some lessons I have learned managing both large and small-scale change.

Share the Why

It is very important that your people understand why this change is occurring. It helps them put things into context and understand where they fit in the overall picture. Communication is key and having a clear communication strategy is a great place to start.

According to the 2018 NSW Government State of the Sector Report, the median tenure of a public sector employee is 9 years. That is a considerable time of employment and often brings with it a strong commitment to role and function. It also means your staff are likely to have an emotional investment in their role and organisation. People will respond to any pending change on two levels, work and personal, and both are equally important to address.

Clarity and Honesty – Definitely the Best Policy

Be clear about what is changing and if you don’t know, tell people what you do know. Staff will be disinclined to believe you in the first place, so be truthful and frank about what is changing and why. Use simple, forthright language as jargon and platitudes only make people feel insulted, unvalued and will most definitely ensure they stop listening. Don’t try to answer questions to which you don’t yet have the answers. Your credibility increases with your honesty. In my experience, your staff can handle almost anything, as long as they know what is happening, even if they don’t like it.

Everyone is Different

In today’s environment of super Clusters, assuming a “one size fits all” approach to your communication strategy will inevitably end in tears. Give careful thought to what types of communication will best suit your different audiences. The rationale for some types of change is not always immediately clear, particularly if people have not been involved in high-level conversations and strategising. Groups or individuals who felt proud of their independence, contribution or approach within the context of the existing structure may suddenly feel confused, angry or rejected. They need to hear that senior leadership understand them and know what they are going through. Which goes to my next point.

Consider the Source

Large scale change communications are generally best delivered from the top. Develop a cascading communication strategy that starts with the Secretary, Dep Sec and Executive Director. In my experience change is one of those times when hierarchy matters. Research shows that staff feel greater comfort if they know that their executive and their direct manager are in the know. In Prosci’s, Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition, participants identified engagement with, and support from, middle management as a top contributor to change management success. In a separate study with 575 change leaders, 84% of participants ranked manager and supervisor involvement in change initiatives as “extremely important” or “very important” to the success of their project.

Consultation – Fact or Fiction

The most successful change processes I have run or seen, are those that clearly identify whether they are consulting or informing.  To say you are consulting when employees are unable to influence the outcome increases distrust and disengagement. Both consulting and informing, have their place and you can build trust quicker by distinguishing honestly between the two.

Whether consulting or informing, be sure to provide meaningful opportunities for people to ask questions, request clarification, and provide input. Dialogue leads to involvement, and involvement results in commitment which are both critical ingredients for a change process. Equally, leaders and change managers need to be seen and available to mix with staff in the workplace as regularly as possible.

Supporting Staff through Career Transition

It is important to note that a journey of transition starts from the time that the individual hears of potential change, all the way through to months and even years into their new journey. This includes new employment, self-employment, further education, a career break or retirement.

How you support those that need to exit your organisation also has a major impact on those staying. This is true for every employee at every level. Your leaders will do a better job of supporting the change and their staff, if they know they and their teams will be respected and well-cared for. Every step of the journey must be carefully mapped out to nurture people through change. Hold interactive workshops and forums in which employees can explore the changes together while learning more. Use training as a form of interactive communication and as an opportunity for people to safely explore new behaviours and ideas about change and change management. All levels of the organisation must participate in the same sessions.

Kindness and Integrity

How you tell staff matters. So much planning goes into forming new structures, organisations or projects only to be let down by how employees are told of their future. Are you holding conversations in a confidential space before, during and after? Have you planned what support those staying and those leaving will receive? Do your managers know how to communicate with those staying and those leaving?

Mobility is Powerful

There are many options out there for how to handle a moving workforce. Mobility between public sector agencies has been a long-time goal of the NSW Government and there are new opportunities opening up for your people every day.

Have you taken steps to understand your employees’ transferable skills, how you go about identifying them, and how they may apply elsewhere? Studies show that people do not always recognise the range of transferable skills they have. A pathway to mobility might be the right solution for your organisation.

The Biggies

The following are the fundamental things I keep close when managing a change process and I hope they assist you too:

  • In the absence of regular and consistent information, people will make it up. If the rumour mill is in full flight, you have waited too long to communicate.
  • People will be angry, frustrated and untrusting. That’s ok. It’s not ok for leaders to be defensive, evasive, make excuses, or thoughtless.
  • You can’t communicate too much or talk to too many people.
  • Remember the 20-60-20 split. Focus on the 60% of staff looking for guidance and an opportunity to adopt the change, rather than the 20% who will never buy-in.
  • Did I say, “You can’t communicate too much”.
  • At every stage be kind

Sophia Symeou

CEO and Founder INS