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Managing human reactions is key to successful organisational change

The current economic climate means that companies across Ireland -- both large and small -- are experiencing significant levels of change. Organisations are restructuring, downsizing, exploring new markets or engaging in extensive M&A activity, all of which require significant change for everyone involved, particularly employees.

You might assume that the implementation of change in an organisation is a very straightforward process, but, in reality, it is often quite complex and painful.

Figures from research conducted by McKinsey show that 70pc of planned changes fail to achieve their initial aims.

A Google search of 'Managing Change' yields over 24 million pages devoted to techniques for managing this process. Interestingly, if you search for 'Why Change Fails' the number rises to 157 million.

So, with no scarcity of wisdom on the knowledge, skills and strategies required to implement change, why do so many companies still struggle so much with change?

The answer is quite simple -- when implementing change, managers tend to underestimate the human reaction to change and the fact that individuals will respond to change in different ways.

At Sheppard Moscow, we find that many company boards and senior leaders are obsessed with 'Change Methodology', the set of procedures used to make change happen.

They look for rational, well-laid out plans that guarantee the desired outcomes of a change campaign. What they don't tend to focus on is how people will respond to the proposed changes.

Some will embrace change wholeheartedly while others will simply fail to buy into it or be afraid of what it means for them.

So while most managers are very effective at changing their organisations physically, for example moving to a new premises, or structurally, in terms of who does what, or in terms of systems and processes, many struggle when it comes to dealing with the 'people' aspect of change.

In fact, managers often forget to engage the people who will be affected by the change. Unfortunately, this failure can result in increased resistance to the planned changes and cause delays in getting the required business results.

If a business is to successfully change it needs to adapt its culture.

This requires engaging with the workforce and fundamentally changing the mindsets, habits and implicit ways of working within the organisation that people go along with but rarely discuss openly.

These are often so subtle that even those in the organisation fail to spot patterns. And changing cultural patterns to fit the new strategy is essential. As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

The resulting impact and 'cost' of failing to factor in the human element of organisational change includes wasted energy with no real progress; disengaged and disillusioned staff who see this as 'yet another' change activity that will not deliver results; or initial compliance to change which soon fades away as people revert to habitual behaviours once the focus moves on to the next change process.

Plotting and planning a bold new strategic direction is not the only key to successful change.

The key lies in ensuring you take the time to assess the 'people' aspect of an organisation and ensure the proper implementation and leadership of the change.

Three guiding principles to think about when implementing change are:

1. By all means, plan for change -- but engage your people in the creation of the plan, as much as possible

2. Create your plan for change, but expect the unexpected. The best way to stay tuned to what is actually happening in people's day-to-day behaviour and attitudes is to talk to them

3. Plans are great, but in the end, it is how your people behave in their interactions with one another and with your customers that matters. As a leader, pay attention to your own behaviour and attitude as it is important that you 'walk the talk' and demonstrate the change that you are hoping to eventually see in those around you.

Andrea Cusack is a partner and consultant with organisational group Sheppard Moscow. sheppardmoscow.com

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