Goizueta Advice: How can I successfully navigate disruptive changes in the workplace?

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Rodney: If I may offer contrarian advice, distance yourself from major changes, because most fail. Even with the best planning, a big change is as risky as any new business venture, especially if it’s in response to hostile or unpredictable changes in the market or technology. Most firms do not plan change well. People are usually overly optimistic about their capability to change or the complexity of change.

On a more positive note, every partial failure creates the opportunity for some form of success. This usually requires both implementing processes that reduce risk (e.g., incrementalism, iterations between planning and outputs, borrowing solutions from successful others) and reframing the change as a success on some dimensions—even if they’re not the original goals.

Danielle: How you perceive the change affects how you react to it. Recognizing the positives can reduce your anxiety and allow you to respond more productively. People often assume the worst and fill in the blanks with their fears, so management needs to regularly communicate what they know. Also, focus on the elements you can control. During a workforce reduction, prepare yourself by updating your resume and networking. Finally, seek out support from people around you, or even a professional. You will manage change better if you feel supported and understood by those you trust.

Brandon: The first question to ask is, “Who’s calling the shots, and what does he or she value?” Identify the new expectations—never gamble and guess. Secondly, make sure you have a strong reputation and a broad internal network prior to any major change, so that the first thing anyone says to describe you is all positive. Finally, don’t forget that your boss is your number one client. Constantly ensure you are meeting his or her expectations, and provide frequent updates early to build trust.

Murray: Change can be viewed as a threat, but I view it as an opportunity, especially for leaders. Leaders can step up and move the organization to a better place for its stakeholders. They are uniquely positioned to understand what value can be drawn from the change and the most important things needed to realize that value. They can transform a perceived threat into an opportunity and align teams around goals and activities that drive success.

Steve: Some of the most disruptive changes in the workplace are new bosses, mergers, and acquisitions.

New bosses: Help them to succeed; the transition can be overwhelming, so offer to take some weight off their shoulders while they move up the “learning curve.” By focusing on them, you will build a much stronger connection than if you make short-term communications all about you.

Mergers: Clearly outline the rationale to all employees. A vacuum of information leads to rumors and speculation. Employees crave a sense of purpose, so it’s important to define the new direction (if any) of the company and what any changes might mean to employees (whether positive or negative).

Acquisitions: The acquirer should force through hard, inevitable decisions as quickly as possible (some call this “ripping off the Band-Aid®”). Pay particular attention to identifying and supporting the acquired company’s “all-star” employees, and be extra sensitive to company culture, allowing employees to continue to “own” items that mean a lot to them, so they feel part of the bigger picture. Finally, promote one or more of the acquired employees to demonstrate opportunity for growth.

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