Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
During company-wide change initiatives, how do you help employees talk about and process their own experience with change?
There is an old axiom that suggests that humans naturally resist change. If you believe this is true, offer someone a raise and see how much resistance he or she puts up. People don’t resist change per se; they resist change that they fear will cause them problems. That’s why it’s so important to create an atmosphere of open and honest dialogue during a company-wide change initiative.
People need to be able to talk about all problems, real and imagined. Sometimes a change that sounds good on paper creates unimagined problems. If you can’t talk about these unanticipated challenges, you can’t resolve them. Sometimes the very thought of change creates worries, followed by rumors. If you can’t talk about imaginary problems or widely shared myths, you can’t put them to rest. Honest communication greases the gears of change.
How do you create an atmosphere of open dialogue? Encourage frank discussion of concerns. If people appear nervous to express their disagreements, play devil’s advocate as a way of starting the free flow of ideas: “It is possible that changing this process will have a negative effect on delivery schedules. How do you see it?” Express your own concerns or any apprehensions you may have heard from others. This demonstrates that it’s safe to bring up issues.
When you first introduce a new policy, procedure, or other change, ask people to share their concerns. Give people time to think about the issue, and then reconvene a day or two later. Thank those who express their worries or share differing viewpoints. Restate their views to ensure that you understand their issues and to let them know you’re actually listening rather than simply preparing counter arguments. If you agree with certain issues, agree. If the person has left off part of the argument, agree and then add the additional information. If you see it differently, don’t abrasively disagree; instead, suggest that you have a different view and share how you differ. Then call for questions.
Don’t treat people who have differing views, concerns, or worries as the enemy. When people raise issues, avoid suggesting that they aren’t “team players.” People who have the courage to bring up their differing views are your heroes. You can’t answer questions or solve problems if you don’t know what they are. Those who let you know what the unspoken issues are by sharing unpopular points of view should be viewed as valued assets. Don’t make the mistake of cutting yourself off from employee concerns.
The goal of all of this open communication isn’t to win arguments or convince one another of your better ideas, but to understand one another, share your best ideas, and then come to a common agreement. Be willing to sincerely listen. Be willing to make mid-course corrections. You don’t want to give in at the first sight of resistance, but you also don’t want to be too set in your ways to make any viable improvements. So talk openly and honestly, make it safe for others to speak and be heard, and let shared knowledge illuminate your path to change.