A lot of change advice focuses on dealing with resistance to change. Everyone knows that people don’t like change, and most leaders get ready to answer questions about change as part of their prep. But the biggest problem with most changes is not the verbal resistance of the nay-sayers, but those who say nothing but do nothing; the passive resisters.
Passive resisters don’t disagree with the change, they don’t tell you there is anything wrong with you, the leader, is proposing and in a workshop or training setting they appear to participate. If you were measuring engagement with the change based on verbal comments, hands raised or participation in sessions you would think that the change has been accepted by the silent majority. As a result leaders often spend time ‘dealing with’ the vocal minority and assume that if they are ‘sorted out’ that everyone else will be fine.
This is a mistake.
The vocal minority can often benefit the leader as a way of fully explaining the change when answering their questions. In my experience the more extreme views are seen to be so and they self marginalise and the others are often a lack of understanding or something missing from your information.
But for every voice raised in public or obvious non participation in the training, assume that there will be a larger group that are not engaged but don’t want you to know:
There will be lots of reasons for this, from fear of failure, loss of security and stability, people who need to see things in action to believe it, those who just take time and many other ‘personal reasons’. Most can all be helped to engage given the right approach to the implementation of the change. But they are not your real problem.
The group that really demands your attention are those who are ‘riding it out until you’ve gone, just like every other manager before you’. They have often been in the organisation a long time, have been promoted to a reasonable position and/or have made themselves valuable because of their place in the ‘corporate memory’. They are happy with the way they do things now and don’t want to ‘learn new tricks’. The current approach sits well with them. Some have designed things to suit themselves or have built up the fixes and tweeks to the system over many years. These are the same tweaks and fixes that you’ve identified as needing modified. The people themselves are often the road blocks in the system that you are proposing to streamline. They are the ones that don’t want the ‘culture of empowerment’ that you have proposed as that takes away their power. They won’t change and won’t tell you why they won’t change, until the change grinds to a slow halt and then they will tell you that ‘maybe this wasn’t the right change for the organisation’. And you listen because they are managers, or senior figures.
The trick with this group is to build in early short term action focused measurability to the imitative. They can ride out long term KPIs and you can’t see the reason for failure until too late. You need activity measures, action based reporting, usage stats and anything that shows who is doing the ‘new thing’ and how often. You need short term staff engagement stats, not just annual surveys, and they need to be measurable by manager. You need evidence that your expensive and important change is ‘not optional’ and that everyone who should be doing it is doing it.
And if the stats say otherwise you’ve got a ‘conversation for commitment’ on your hands.
A colleague recently went to a conference event that had a number of business speakers of some experience. He told me that one of them spoke about an ever growing dependency on systems to solve business’s problems when it’s good people you really need. That lead to a question from the floor asking the speaker ‘what do you think of HR then?’ to which they replied ‘if they stick to what they are good at instead of blocking things, then they are ok’. This was from a senior and respected figure in industry.
The day after this conversation I was in a room at a meeting dealing with a difficult performance issue. I have often been expected to ‘manage people out’ as part of change exercises and have got used to the fact that lots of managers go to extreme lengths to get rid of people they don’t like instead of dealing with it properly. In this case I soon realised that the HR manager knew that this was not a performance issue but a personality clash. But he was sitting there trying to go through the process (and heading rapidly to a constructive dismissal case in my view) instead of sitting with the manager and saying ‘what you have asked us to do is unacceptable’
I reflected on the two conversations, and saw that they were the two ends of the same question. What are HR really there for? The business leader saying ‘HR blocked things’ could have worked with an HR person who regularly did what I’ve advocated above I.e telling them ‘you can’t do this’, and they didn’t like it. But they could also have been meaning an HR manager that worked to their own agenda. I’ve seen both and seen mixed results from both approaches.
HR as a voice of conscience:
I’ve often told of a manger I worked for who regularly sat his HR director down and said ‘tell me what I’m not wanting to hear?’. He knew he needed to know what was going on ‘people-wise’ even if it wasn’t his favourite topic. He knew that he had to pay attention to company values as much as he needed to understand potential employment law issues. His HR director was a voice of conscience, but a permissive one. You don’t listen to your conscience if you don’t want to. Does your HR manager have to force you to hear what you don’t want to hear? do you see that as part of their role? Or are they there just to wipe up your mess?
HR as a strategic partner:
How often have you heard that phrase? How often has it been true? I bet the former beats the latter. For HR to be a strategic partner their initiatives and business initiatives need to be seamless. I’ve recently been talking to one great HR manager who is looking to work with a merger team that sits within the business to test, trial, role out and prove a whole load of change tools and processes that the business is lacking. Not just rolling out some training to managers and seeing what happens, but actually working to make the change successful and that being the way the rest of the business says ‘I’d like some of that’. Not dancing to their own tune or just doing what business tells them, but working as a partner. It takes two to tango though, and you can only do that in a business that sees HR as a strategic partner.
And it genuinely does take Two to Tango. HR that dances to its own tune or doesn’t take moral high ground in the face of poor management behaviours does itself no favours. Likewise a business that takes HR out of a box each time they want someone to do the hard stuff and doesn’t engage with strategic HR initiatives deserves the HR team it gets.
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