Jane Sparrow

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These days it’s less ‘business as usual’ and more ‘change as usual’ as our corporate environments (and world!) are in a constant state of flux. It means that change management itself is almost a dying trade being rapidly replaced by schools of thought around change leadership, agility and collaboration.

For me, there’s one very simple thing that has always been at the heart of change. Human nature. Whilst it seems that everything in life is changing very quickly, mainly driven by rapid technological development, as human beings, we are not. Of course we do change and evolve but not at the speed of everything that is changing around us – we remain human at heart with basic needs to feel valued, communicated with and respected. Therefore, when we think about change and the fact that ultimately, aversion to change is a human condition, why do we try to manage it in a systematic, process driven way? This is undoubtedly the reason behind the fact that 70 per cent of change programmes fail…

I recently worked with a major financial service organisation that was about to merge with another company. Essentially, they had been told that, as a consequence of the merger, their organisation wouldn’t exist much longer. I asked the leadership team how things were going and after 15 minutes of them talking about systems, processes, work streams and structures, I had to interject to enquire where the people came into it all. What’s the message people are receiving about why this is happening? What impact is it having on people? Each member of the leadership team had a different answer. The ‘People’ work stream wasn’t about how they were going to lead people, retain and manage their talent or keep people engaged and motivated – only how they were going to be TUPE’d across.

The big takeaway here is that, like so many other organisations managing change, 90% of the conversation in the room was about the ‘what’ with nowhere near enough focus on the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ in human terms. The ‘why’ part of the story is so often lost in the eagerness of the communicator to explain what is happening and what it means for the individual. However, the ‘why’ is the context and can make the difference between acceptance or rejection of change. The ‘why’ is rooted in the emotional and is the part that, as human beings, we actually crave the most. Ultimately, what makes us human is our emotional response to things. We all know the famous quote around life being 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it and this is exactly why the ‘what’ needs to start taking more of a backseat in the context of change.

Ensuring leaders and people managers are equipped to deal with what are very human reactions to change is an area that is hugely neglected. Leadership behaviour in the context of change needs to be far more intentional to spearhead a positive, human focused journey. So what might this actually look like? It means leaders coming into board or management meetings and deliberately talking about the human factor. It means investigating what is putting people into a fearful state and causing them to be defensive. It means exploring as a management team what the language around the ‘why’ is going to be so you know you have it right as a group. It means ensuring the comms element is well thought through and there’s a constant drum beat to keep people feeling informed, even if there’s nothing new to say.

During the high profile merger with Lloyds, people felt disappointed and let down by the process of the merger but it was important that didn’t affect customer satisfaction and business performance. I’ll always remember Gordon Lyle, then Human Resources Director for HBOS, describing to me how great leaders in HBOS instinctively communicated constantly with clarity and consistency. He detailed how line managers “bought their people together and talked with empathy about how they understood the merger was causing anxiety but that until we had answers to the big questions, we had the opportunity to feel more positive by channelling energy into continuing to do what we do, to the best of our ability. It made a huge difference to the way people felt and the performance of the business during a very difficult time.”

Within the three pillars of change – what we believe, how we behave and the tools we use[1] – far too much emphasis is being put on the tools we use i.e. process, systems, action plans. Leaders need to give much more intentional focus to what the human impact of change is and what the human reaction is likely to be. We need to win hearts and minds by recognising we are emotional creatures and intentionally invest in leaders and managers to remind them of that. Leadership today is about building trust, investing in relationships and engaging people constantly, not just around a change plan. In order to master change management we need to get back to basics on human nature.


[1] Registered The Culture Builders