Many years ago, on the heels of a Milwaukee publisher’s departure, I was thrilled by the invitation to rise from editor to publisher of a prestigious newspaper group. Imagine my shock, then, when I read in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a few days later that our newspaper group of seven publications was up for sale. News to me! Within three days of that announcement, I had lined up six interviews; a month later, I was named publisher of an even larger group of newspapers for the Chicago market. And yes, I took the best of the Milwaukee talent with me.
I didn’t leave because the newspaper group was up for sale. I left because that wasn’t communicated to me privately before the announcement went public. I no longer trusted the organization I worked for.
After that experience, I became very sensitized to how I managed businesses and personnel during times of internal and even external changes. I made a list of best practices and I checked it twice — and then polled employees post-experience to see if our processes could be improved before the next round of changes. While it’s understood that a business must and will change over time to better meet the growing expectations of its customers, it’s also just as natural for people to resist change. Here’s my checklist of the steps I found helpful to minimize employee pushback and distractions:
As early in the process as possible, present a concise goal and a clear “what’s in it for you” message. There is a reason for change. What is the perceived benefit or goal for the company – and for the employees? An example: changing the composition of internal departments or work groups isn’t a goal; it’s a tactic. Instead, announce that you’re looking into new operational strategies to better handle rush periods or seasonal sales demands to improve customer service and to help minimize employee stress. It may not yet be time to discuss what you plan to DO, but it is never too early to discuss what you want to achieve.
When possible, recruit employee input. Accept that this isn’t always possible or even helpful. For example, in the event of closings, acquisitions or mergers, the primary goal is to squash information to reduce the likelihood of market fallout during the due diligence phase. However, it is prudent to tell managers and (then) staff what to expect before any public announcement is made. That said, beyond those exceptions, include a sampling of employees to help plan how to reach goals whenever possible.
Be clear and transparent. At the initial planning session, it’s beneficial to provide a skeleton for a plan of action for others to help flesh out. Employees need reassurance that you’ve thought the problem through but are open to letting them suggest adaptations. This is a time to give them as much information as you can, and to set clear deadlines and success measurements. Be firm about what is off the table, too; not every decision can be made or questioned in committee. As the leader, you are expected to keep your eye on the bigger picture, to set the budget, and to allocate available company resources to the project.
Break a big change down into smaller steps with built-in merit recognitions. Hit a deadline? Celebrate that success! We’re not talking bonuses for every milestone, but incentives do incentivize. What works in your organization? Two hours more vacation time later in the year? This is where your employee sampling group can be especially instructive!
Provide ample training. Many times, the real pushback comes when someone will be expected to learn a new skill that they lack confidence they can do. When training is part of the package rather than an add-on that an employee needs to request, you’ve gone a long way toward neutralizing rejection.
And the best advice of all: treat each employee the way you’d like to be treated in their shoes.