What’s Keeping Organizational Change From Sticking and How to Change It

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When retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal was a brand new lieutenant, he asked his father how he knew if someone was going to be a good combat commander. “Some people keep asking for more information and what they’re trying to do is reduce the uncertainty to zero, but that’s not achievable. So they get hesitant. They get hesitant and focus on getting more and more information the uncertainty of the situation and they don’t act.”

Introducing changes to an organization is usually accompanied by a flood of uncertainty. Leaders try to bring solace and clarity with plenary meetings, town halls, and committees. However, these traditional approaches often fail. Employees seek additional information through formal and informal channels to reduce their uncertainty to zero.

Yet uncertainty cannot be completely eliminated. And as leaders, when we try to fight uncertainty rather than embrace it, we can exacerbate the anxiety that plagues organizational change.

Related: Why Change Isn’t Happening and What to Do About It

People fear change for a variety of reasons, but often because they lose control of their role. The bigger the change, the more they will feel like the change is being done to them. Therefore, anxiety brews when changes are suggested, promoted, or implemented. Also, during any change, information is power and no one likes to feel helpless.

This creates organizational anxiety. Anxiety can take endless forms – worry, fear, panic, stress, tension, frustration, irritability, anxiety, fear and more. However, leaders should not focus on dealing with this anxiety. The real antidote to anxiety is action.

Taking action, even a small action, can help employees begin to overcome stress. Even the most honest, positive and compelling narrative will not eliminate all employee concerns. It’s important to help employees understand what they control and what they can’t control during change. How they can participate through action. Here are three ways to use action to eliminate change anxiety:

1. Engage employees in the change earlier in the process

Leaders often believe it is their responsibility to design and develop a plan for change, such as a new organizational strategy. However, those directly affected by the change are not involved in the process until it is finalized. Instead of isolating the organization from change, engage more employees throughout the change process.

This helps in several ways. First, it brings new perspectives to the change itself. An employee may bring to light a new idea or approach that the management team hadn’t considered before. Second, it gives employees more time to understand and digest the change. They can ask questions and think about how they can kiss it with a cool head, rather than throw it at them when it’s done.

Related: How to lead your team through change

2. Allow employees to help refine and improve change

You can have a change ready to be delivered to the organization. But, it’s important to give employees the opportunity to contribute their insights and shape the ongoing refinement of change. No plan is perfect. When shared with employees, they will see opportunities and obstacles that might have been overlooked in development.

Present the change as an open direction for improvement. Employees will have the opportunity not only to consider the impact of the change on them and their service, but also the opportunity to improve it. Keep in mind that refinement is not the path to negativity and fear. Seek and research productive, utilitarian, and insightful ideas that enhance the outcome of change.

3. Enable employees to understand and paint the future state

With change comes worry about today. How the change will affect a current workload, role scope or reporting structure. Yet most changes are about a future state – a longer-term outcome, like increased sales, reduced costs, or entering a new market – all of which take time to materialize. By focusing on the overall outcome, it enables employees to understand the future state and propose immediate and long-term actions to achieve it.

For example, if the organization is being restructured. Share with employees the goal of the future state, while allowing them to contribute ideas on how the restructuring can be further optimized to achieve it. Giving them the ability to influence the restructuring gives them a little more skin in the game. It eliminates the perception that it’s happening to them rather than with them.

Instead of struggling with organizational anxiety, leaders need to think about how to embrace it. Provide employees with courses of action. This allows them to internalize and commit to the change, rather than having it happen around them – and sticking with it.

Related: 10 Ways Organizations Can Work on Change Management!

Aubrey L. Morgan