This post has been updated to include COVID pandemic perspectives.
Eliminating Your Company’s Fear of Change
It’s time to argue with bloggers over at Harvard Business Review again. In Cure Your Company’s Allergy to Change, Brad Power discusses how to break the cycle in the failure of change programs.
Let me just focus on the list at the end of his post, which starts with the statement:
Several lessons on how to achieve meaningful cultural change and associated operating performance improvements run through successful efforts at health insurance companies Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan:
And then follows on with the following three points:
- Organizational realignment
- Improvement methods
- Employee Engagement
Throughout the article, Brad explores company culture. In his health insurance company example he posits the following:
“At several off-sites, they talked about culture, and people spoke their minds.”
“Just about everyone in the company agrees the culture is dysfunctional, with various layers to the problems”
Talking about culture doesn’t change it. Talking about policy and practice changes culture. Culture is shaped, as I put forth in Management by Design, by the actions and behaviors of the organization. A policy that isn’t enforced influences culture. A practice that thrives outside of policy also influences culture. Every manager and every employee, along with various partners, co-create culture. If you want to eliminate fear, you have to eliminate the behaviors that create and reinforce fear.
Organizational structure, as Brad points out, begets incentive structure. Eliminating the fear of change comes not from incentives, but by giving permission. I have talked with dozens of people about why they left their previous employers. Most of the time it isn’t about incentives, but about ideas that don’t fit, risks that are taken, respect that isn’t offered.
The way an organization accepts and explores change at the cultural level creates a great moment of self-reflection, but it does little more than develop an awareness of an abstract. It is not until people start acting differently, letting people take risks with new ideas, actively engaging in dialog around hard questions that expose underlying false assumptions, or offering deeper transparency into decision making, that the organization can create a new culture. Culture is a big abstract thing, but it isn’t designed on high and trickled down.
Culture is a million tiny acts by line managers and employees that emerge and merge into a structure of interlocking experiences that tell employees, customers, and partners, what an organization is and stands for.
Brad also mentions improvement methods like “agile” or “lean” which again, are abstract notions that mean little unless applied in the right way. And those ideas are far from equivalent.
Agile means to adapt and change as change occurs. Lean means to operate with as few resources as necessary to get the job done within the parameters of the service level agreement. I believe that lean can be a change, but it cannot lead to change.
Organizations that want to innovate, or adapt to change, need, like the human genome, some parts of the chromosome that have the flexibility to mutate. Organizations that are too “lean” often lose their ability to navigate change because they don’t have resources to redirect without affecting quality or time-to-delivery.
And that takes us back to behavior—in this case, hiring behavior. Many organizations post the Great Recession didn’t hire extra workers because of the “fear” that they might need to lay them off again. That fear is drove behavior, from hiring practices to planning.
People chose lean in order to avoid the discomfort of letting people go again. That fear is also stopped them from bringing in new ideas, developing a diversity of thought and investing in non-core businesses that may offer a strategic advantage in the future.
During the COVID pandemic, organizations again face change, this time not from their unwillingness to hire, but from workers empowered by work-from-home to take control of their work experience, to transform it, or to end it.
Fear of change has also become an issue in many nations. And rather than create incentives for people to change, we need to give them permission to innovate, to assert themselves and to create new value. Essential crises precipitate structural change if recognized and embraced or not. Left to its own, it may meet more resistance, and therefore take more time to permeate. The COVID pandemic has changed the relationship between people and work forever regardless of any organization’s attempt to reestablish pre-pandemic perspectives.
If you want to engage fearless employees, start with respect for their experience, listen and learn from them, and give them permission to pursue their passions and to learn. Respected and empowered employees will be engaged, and organizations will benefit not just from the retention of the employee, but from the enthusiasm they spread and the value they create. Stop over-intellectualizing management, culture and innovation when it comes to eliminating fear, and start recognizing that your people co-create the work experience and it’s time to take a collaborative role in that process.
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