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Managing change, part II

In the last blog post we discussed how a staff may react to the use of new technology. While management holds the ultimate authority, the implementation of any changes are carried out by the workers. Without the willing acceptance of those workers, the best technology in the world stands little chance of being successful.

Solution quality

In the last post, we learned that management can protect the solution quality. Typically, this means the specific technology selected. It retains this authority because it holds the purchasing power and controls the selection process. However, workers are not powerless in the implementation of the solution. Consider the weighing of solution quality (technology) versus worker acceptance (implementation) as a careful balance of control.

In the early days of master control automation, one could hear hours of complaints at any convention or SBE meeting about how management was forcing automation on operators. These same operators would then harangue about how bad the automation solutions were and what management was “really” trying to do. Such discussions were more about empowerment, or more likely the loss of power by workers, than they were about the quality of the solutions.

There are endless examples of where a high-quality solution failed to achieve worker acceptance and was therefore ultimately less efficient than a solution of less quality (perhaps even manual operation) because of worker pushback. Recall that workers decide how effectively any solution will be implemented.

Employee reactions can be volatile

The mere rumor of changes to a workplace will launch a wide range of worker reactions. A good supervisor will plan for this range of emotion and prepare in advance with proper responses.

The first reaction by employees to any technological workplace change will be the reasonable questions such as, “How will this affect me?” “Will I lose my job?” “Will my pay be cut?” “Will I have to learn new skills?” Clearly such questions are rational and need to be addressed. Unfortunately, management often marches forward with a solution while ignoring such issues. It does so to its own peril.

One simple and effective way to resolve early worker fears is to have the change planned and implemented by “fellow” employees. If the person largely leading the charge to new ways of performing a job is perceived as “one of us,” any negative response will be hugely reduced. However, if the person with the new solution is not a part of the affected staff, then a completely different set of responses may be developed. The reaction to change cannot be separated from the reaction to the person or group that initiates the change.

Identify the resistance

The first step in resolving any negative pushback is to identify the nature of the resistance. Some staff may support the new technology, and others may not. Categorize the workers according to their perceptions. Then, use constructive forces (fellow and supportive staff) to improve acceptance through discussions, training and information. Sometimes just giving staff members time to gripe will go a long way to resolving hesitation.

However, do not let complaint sessions turn into rallying cries or lobbing against the proposed changes. The supervisor must make clear that meetings are designed to clear up any misinformation, provide feedback and allow for questions. These meetings are not the place to trash management. It is imperative that you not let such meetings become a vehicle for negative consensus building. If a small group wants to recruit workers to their side of the issue, at least make them do it off-premise.

Cooperative solutions

While some front office types may not like this approach, it is usually desirable to develop a dialog with the staff early in the design stage. For instance, instead of simply telling the workers that “We have decided to fully automate master control,” announce that a study of workflow is being undertaken and one of their peers will be part of the study. An outside expert can be hired to lead the study, but it is important that the workers understand that they will have some say in the development of a solution.

Launching a study is far better than the director of engineering announcing that “We’ve decided to buy an Acme automation controller and you will use it.” Rather, facts obtained from a study could be presented to the staff, perhaps even allowing them to suggest workflow methods or solutions. With such an approach, the workers perceive themselves as developing the solution — not management. Under these conditions, acceptance will be far higher.

When evaluating the staff’s responses to change, it is important to not immediately reject any of them. Responses can be divided into three categories: emotional, factual and situational. The responses, especially early on, will be based entirely on feelings —not facts. This means that they can change through reason or logical arguments or the passing of time.

Emotional responses expressed by the group members must be accepted by the leader. The discussion leader may use such phrases as “I see that you didn’t like the time study expert. Do the rest of you feel the same way? Perhaps I didn’t fully explain the expert’s function to you.” During such discussions, do not be dismissive of worker expressions.

The leader can provide the workers with confidence and assurance, perhaps by saying something like, “You understand we don’t have to use the time study data.” Or, “The expert’s job is to supply data. Together we’ll decide how to use it.”

Allowing the staff to release emotions along with the assurance of feelings and reassurance of status will reduce the level of anxiety. Arguments and fact-filled responses may increase emotions because the arguments threaten the individual and the group. The leader must be willing to provide the proper attitude, understanding and tolerance to listen, even to unreasonable statements. Often, allowing emotional outbursts are all that’s required to resolve the issue. People want to be heard.

Once the hostilities and fears have been expressed, the group will become more interested in facts. They will ask questions and may offer previously unknown information from their perspective. We’ve now reached the problem-solving phase.

When the workers are encouraged to participate in the implementation of technological change, resistance is greatly reduced. This is because the people are less likely to fear the decisions in which they have participated.

A word of warning: Consultative management is not participation. Involvement that merely allows the voicing of objections falls short of involvement in the diagramming of a solution. However, the consultative approach is better than the selling approach because a too smooth selling technique may actually increase fear. The direct approach of enforcing a change simply because it is management’s prerogative engenders the most fear and hostility and should be avoided whenever possible.