Build or burn?

The Comfy Chair Hypothesis

The point of managers is to change things.  They wouldn’t be needed if it were otherwise.  The world is full of problems, surprises, and challenges that require businesses to adjust constantly.  A tweak of the engine is usually sufficient, but sometimes you need to hit it with a hammer.  It’s this type of shock-inducing, transformative activity that spawns the sort of ‘change’ that needs to be ‘managed’.

The textbooks will tell you to ‘create a vision’, explain the reason a change is necessary and describe a positive picture of what the business will look like afterwards; something that people can hold on to while they go through the disruption, and motivate them to work with the change.  The process is described as a hockey stick, with morale dipping initially before recovering to achieve greater heights.  It’s difficult to argue against this.  Only, the sorts of changes I’ve been involved with – mergers, cost-cutting, restructuring, introducing new systems – all shared a common feature that proves stubbornly resistant to the vision thing; namely, the effect on people’s jobs.

I’ve found that people don’t really engage wholeheartedly with a change until they know, with certainty, what it means for them.  Making predictions of what it might mean, or trying to give reassurance won’t wash.  I’ve watched senior managers get frustrated with this, but they would behave in exactly the same way if they were in the same circumstances. Any serious change puts pressure on the employee and their family.  Will they have a job?  If so, will it be a job they want?  Will they have to move house?  These are all areas of our life where we want to assert our control and, temporarily at least, these are out of our control.  It’s deeply unpleasant and worrying.  No matter what an individual’s underlying levels of motivation, everyone experiences the same unsettling feelings.

So this sets up a problem.  To manage a change you need to create a vision that people can engage with to help them through the unsettling period, but people can’t engage authentically until the consequences for them personally are settled. And usually you can’t tell them what it means for each person until after the initial change project is complete. 

This conundrum is jokingly described as the agony of uncertainty being worse than the certainty of agony.  An HR executive I knew describes these feelings as being like an occupational hazard of working in large corporate firms.  Such firms generally treat their employees very well, but those employees are at greater risk of sudden upheaval as different parts of their business are moved around the globe.

A senior executive at Unilever told me how he coped with the changes in his life.  He was Indian, working in the UK at the time, but had lived the typical expat life of an executive in a global corporate, which is to say he was a highly paid nomad.  How did he cope with all the travel, acclimatising to new cultures, so many new jobs?  He said he could cope with everything as long as, every evening, when he comes home he can sink into his favourite chair.  That chair, he said, gave him constancy even while everything else around him was changing.

During every change project I’ve been involved it has always seemed to me that there has been one issue which was unforeseen by management and the project team and yet became extremely important to the employees, disproportionately so.  Often the issue was  simply over-looked, or given a low priority, resulting in the project team being ill-prepared when it comes racing to the foreground during employee discussions.  As a result, the issue grows, and especially if unions are involved, has seemed to become a proxy for the disgruntlement felt from the larger changes being proposed.  The nature of the issue will change with each organisation.  It might be a decision to close a social club or to raise the price of coffee or change the rotas for cleaning.  Set against a major change programme that involves job cuts, such issues seem on a different scale.  These are however ‘comfy chair’ issues: take them away and you challenge the one bit of constancy people are using to cope with the change.

So my hypothesis for managing change successfully?  Don’t ignore the comfy chair issues.  If you can spot them in advance, well done.  More likely, they crop up unexpectedly.  In which case my advice is either divert resources to addressing the issue head-on, or back off entirely and concede the point.  The issue is not trivial.  Your employees are hurting, and they need something they value to stay unchanged.  If they can at least take comfort that such-and-such is left alone, they can live with the fact you are changing everything else.

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