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Change management – rational vs emotional thinking

10 August, 2021
Change management rational vs emotional thinking - Illustration of industrial site with leaders poiting in different directions

A great many organisations are undergoing some form of change right now. This may be a process of continuous evolution and improvement or a major change brought about by circumstance. It could be that you are adding new locations – and with more people requesting a blend of working from both office and home, this is affecting a large proportion of businesses. Maybe you are changing processes, adding services or reorganising roles. Whatever the reason, and however big or small the changes, the success of your Change Management Programme depends on the buy-in of your workforce. You need to engage both hearts and minds, the rational and the emotional brain.

Change management models

Change management guru John Kotter used his background in business admin and the science of management to observe a range of organisational change programmes and analyse what it was that made them succeed or fail. This led to the creation of his 8-Step change management model. Of course, there are various models out there and it’s always a good idea to explore a few to find the best fit for your organisation. However, Kotter’s model is a good starting point. It focuses on the enthusiasm an organisation must generate, particularly within a company’s leadership, to make change happen. Enthusiasm from the top down makes it feel real and achievable by the whole workforce.

The common mistakes in change management

Kotter observed the same mistakes time and again in organisations of all shapes and sizes. These were the errors that caused more than half of change programmes to fail:

  1. Failure to establish a sense of urgency or, in other words, motivation. Management may well be motivated by the bottom line but what motivates their staff is a lot more complex and wide ranging.
  2. Underestimating the power of an aligned and enthusiastic leadership.
  3. Lack of an overall vision. What will it look like after the change? You need to project a vision of a better future. As an old manager of ours used to say, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.’
  4. Not enough communication. Your vision of a better future needs to be communicated clearly, coherently, often and by as many people as possible. It helps if you have ambassadors within your workforce.
  5. Failure to be ready. Entrenched attitudes and organisational structure can prove substantial barriers to change. You need to prepare the ground, recognise what may need to be in place, and be ready to remove these obstacles.
  6. Not including short-term wins. Organisational change is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take time, during which you risk losing the initial enthusiasm, your sense of urgency and the motivation of your employees. Make sure you build in milestones along the way to celebrate each small success.
  7. Lack of sustained effort. You think you’ve achieved the changes you wanted and you turn your attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, new habits are not entrenched so old habits creep back in. You need to nurture your new ways.
  8. Not embedding changes into corporate culture. It must embrace the changes and hold them up as something to be valued and celebrated.

Change management fundamental questions

An organisation’s Big Picture can often be quite abstract but there are fundamental questions that can help develop an organisation’s narrative about how they see their future Big Picture. The answers to these questions then form the basis of your change management programme. It is vital to remember, however, that your employees want to understand your Big Picture from 2 different angles – the cognitive, rational approach and, more importantly, the emotional approach. They need to feel the drive and passion behind it. You can spend a lot of time making them aware of the changes, telling them about strategies, measures and actions, but without an emotional buy-in, it is all theoretical. How I Think has to be balanced by How I Feel.

Why are we changing?

Everyone needs to be aware of what is driving the changes you are trying to make. At the same time, your staff need to feel that their leaders have a real sense of urgency and enthusiasm, that they believe in the changes, and that they are leading the way.

What are we aiming for?

First of all, you need to communicate a clear vision of the post-change future. What will the organisation be like in 5 or 10 years’ time. Where will it be in the market? What will it be like to work for? Then you need to build an emotional connection by giving people a sense of purpose. Why do we get out of bed in the morning? What difference are we making? There is a real sense that people are re-evaluating what they want out of life and work. They want to know how a business is striving to be a force for good. If this question hasn’t already cropped up in your organisation, be prepared. It will soon.

How will we do it?

This sounds simple. We put together strategies to achieve the changes we want. We’ll have plans, priorities and must-win battles. To achieve these, though, everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. To do so, they need to align behind a set of stated, espoused values that they believe in. How do we treat each other and our customers? How do we behave as an organisation?

What is my role?

Again, this sounds simple. You have a job description, tasks and deliverable targets. This is the rational part of someone’s role. What does this look like emotionally? What sort of behaviours do I need to display to be successful? This links back to how we live our values and how we behave towards those around us. Being able to articulate these values and expected behaviours is the starting point to someone feeling how their role fits within the grand scheme of things. They begin to understand that their role is important. Everyone is a critical cog in the machine. Only by working together do we all succeed.

How are we doing?

If we are doing all these things above, we must be making the organisation better and more effective, mustn’t we? Obviously, we need to have a clear set of measures in place to evaluate the success of our change management programme. But these measures need to motivate people. So, what we also need is to create the feeling amongst employees that they are achieving something, that their role influences the outcome. Remember mistake number 6 – not including short-term wins. Recognising and celebrating milestones along the way feeds into a sense of purpose, leading to a greater sense of motivation.

Are we serious?

Organisations often forget they need to convey that they are serious about the change programme. To be successful, everyone has to be on board. The best way to communicate this loud and clear is for management to walk the walk. It’s very easy to ask our people to make changes and be committed to the cause but their leaders need to step up too. All layers of management must demonstrate visible felt leadership, their actions consistent with the aims of the change programme.

Leaders are human too

A lot of organisations have done great work in the last 18 months. Leaders have become more visible because they have had to be. They have embraced new tech and taken themselves into people’s homes, offering support on a more personal level and showing their human side. This humanisation of leaders is something we need more of. Our leaders are part of the team, not on a pedestal.

There will always be a certain amount of resistance to change in any organisation. However, managed thoughtfully, you can build a change management programme that gets everyone on board.

Change management and your Big Picture

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