Wait for it: The role of patient mentorship in sustaining organizational change

By Chinweike I. Eseonu, Oregon State University.

Change, they say, is the sole constant in life…and business. But, what happens when people get tired of constant change?  When we yearn for the comforts of stability? What happens when we’ve been scarred by change-gone-bad? Change-induced losses, subsequent layoffs, and hits to morale? How do we create systems that are resilient to change?

Good change can lead to leaps in organizational learning and growth, provided all team members buy into the proposed change.

This week, I listened to a presentation that included discussion of Robert Heller’s change continuum. In his book on Managing Change, Heller outlines common responses to change as a continuum, occurring over a period of varying length, depending on the complexity, gravity, and broader impact of the proposed change.  Faced with change, we undergo a period of initial confusion. The status quo has changed and, to the extent that the change is involuntary (e.g. company-wide or national policy change) there is a sense of powerlessness in the face of change.

Heller Change Diagram

Continuum of Emotional Response to Organizational Change (adapted from Managing Change by Robert Heller)

Confusion gives way to denial: “this isn’t really happening,” “this too shall pass,” “this is yet another fad,” “…” One becomes angry or frustrated when “this too [does not] pass,” and begin to find workarounds: “How might I fit this change, this new paradigm, into the status quo?” The status quo is a paradigm in which I am competent, comfortable, and perhaps, more “job secure”.

To the extent that I feel unable to reconcile paradigms, Heller argues that I fall back into despair, resign myself to the new reality and begin the process of acceptance.

A manager’s role in this process is to shepherd people through the change process. In light of the change response chart, I could help my team adjust by taking the following steps:

  1. Communicate early and often: if uncertainty is the root of fear, it is my responsibility as a manager to drive out fear by including team members in change planning.
  1. Clearly map the status quo to the future state: what does the change mean for each team member? How will each person’s tasks be affected (positively and, yes, negatively)?
  1. Recognize and prepare for symptoms of the change continuum: What are the symptoms of confusion or paralysis? How might angry team members affect the workplace? What steps can be taken to help team members move through the change continuum?
  2. Create support systems to shrink the continuum: A regional hospital recently made the switch to an electronic medical record system. The staff were well aware of challenges in the transition from paper to electronic record systems and hesitation abounded. The hospital adopted a “pyramid of mentorship” approach in which a select group was trained on use of the EHR. Trainees returned to their workteams as trainers for fellow employees. From the perspective of innovation diffusion, the effect of this was twofold: (1) The trainers took ownership as they were widely recognized as experts, and (2) broader training occurred at gemba (at the point of work performance) and was often problem based as opposed to less effective abstract methods.

Change is constant, but I’m looking forward to applying these four steps on an upcoming Lean Six Sigma Black Belt project. Are there other strategies that have worked for you? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section, or by email.

Image: Change continuum adapted from Managing Change by Robert Heller