Change: Tell Them What It’s Not

Lately I’ve been speaking with leaders with worldwide responsibility for directing strategic change. In comparing notes about our experience, it’s interesting how often we have to remind employees about what is out of scope, unrelated, and just not changing at all.

While we attend to the strategic level, getting the organization pointed in the right direction, frontline employees often worry about the minutiae because the details matter to them. Our strategies change lives, and not always for the better at first glance.

That’s why self-interest (WIIFM) comes first when we are describing the impact of a change in direction. Our brains are predisposed to detect threats (hence the fight-flight response that occurs in a flash), and changes always carry a hint of threat.

Regardless of the scope of a change, somebody will be worried about their job or salary. Guaranteed. People connect the dots in very imaginative ways.

Consider: A traveler with Southwest Airlines put down the tray table to discover it was dirty. He wondered if the engines were maintained in a similar sloppy manner. Even though cabin cleaning and engine maintenance are completely unrelated tasks, we can understand why people make those connections.

  • Automating workflow makes people wonder if their job is secure.
  • Building a new team causes concern over a loss of status for those not chosen.
  • A small ‘technical upgrade’ kicks off panic that the entire job is changing.

I’ve come to realize that alignment and buy-in are often a matter of repetition of where we are going and where we are not.

This is a critical insight because emphasizing what will not be changing provides a strong secondary benefit. When overwhelm creeps in, we need to be reminded of what will not be different – that our world is not all chaos. These are anchors that people can hold on to.

Underneath the excitement of something new lies worry and fear. Reassure your team that there is not only something good just over the hill, but that they can also expect lots of familiar sights along the way. Perhaps a new forest, but many of the same trees.

Thoughtfully yours,

Jeff Skipper