People First HR Services

Take sting out of change by working with staff

Colleen Coates

After five years of hosting this column, John McFerran has passed on the torch, allowing him to focus on his work as managing director of Boyden, the executive search division of People First. John will continue his monthly Free Press series, View from the Top, featuring interviews with senior leaders from some of Manitoba’s most successful organizations.

As the new regular contributor to this column, I am delighted to share what I have learned in more than 20 years of comprehensive experience in human resources leadership roles. I look forward to providing new insight on issues that are top of mind for both employers and employees and welcome your suggestions for future articles.

In light of this changeover, it seemed only appropriate to focus on the theme of transition.

Change is scary for most people, but it can be particularly worrisome when something threatens to upset our apple cart at work. We’re getting along just fine, settled comfortably into our role and working in a productive groove when suddenly — boom! Change (sometimes planned, sometimes not) is upon us and we’re suddenly asked to take on new responsibilities, acclimatize to a new setting or adapt to a brand new way of doing things.

Every organization goes through change — new structures, new systems and new strategies — but success or failure depends on how well employers manage the transition and help their employees get through it.

Managers, clear, concise and consistent communication is never more important than in the face of change. Even the words you choose suddenly take on more meaning. Do you think it would be better to say, “Like it or not, things are going to change around here,” or “Let’s work together to make a transition from A to B?” My money’s on the second version.

If you’re asking people to make a transition, they deserve to get the truth from you, so tell them everything you know and answer their questions honestly. It’s only natural that employees’ first response will be concern for themselves, their friends and their workplace. In the absence of open communication, people will speculate and their unaddressed fears will automatically fill in the what, when, where and why of the situation. Confusion and anxiety only gets in the way of getting the buy-in you need from your team.

As a leader, you must also realize that news of the change will garner a wide range of reactions, from fervent enthusiasm to staunch resistance. All of them are acceptable because everyone handles change differently. Regardless of the unique responses, your job is unchanged: you must guide people to accept it, let go of the past and embrace the opportunity in front of them.

Take the sting (and the stigma) out of change by working closely with your people through the transition. Help them to:

— Accept that change happens. Some employees may try to negotiate or even argue their way out of making the transition. As their manager, you shouldn’t get into a cage match or, conversely, bend to the reaction. Instead, give them the space to go through the natural reactions to change, from shock and denial (“This isn’t happening.”), guilt (“Could I have done better?”), anger (“This isn’t fair!”), through to final acceptance.

— Understand what the transition means to each individual role. This part may take time, as the minute details of some transitions take a bit to work themselves out. Sit down with every employee and discuss how you envision their role as well as how they interpret it changing. Ask them to come up with ideas and solutions for making a smooth transition. Engaging employees in the vision will help them accept and adapt to it more quickly.

— Reach an agreement on how to manage the transition. Once you and the employee have come to a mutual understanding of how the change will affect their responsibilities, the next step is to agree on how to manage the transition, meet the challenges and move forward. Discuss goals and expectations before, during and after the transition and then support your people in their efforts going forward.

In order to successfully lead through a transition, managers need to clearly establish the need for the change. If they want their people to accept it, they must create a compelling vision that shows how it will benefit the organization and ultimately, improve every employee’s work life.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2011 I2