Workplace Wisdom

To Make Change Successful, Focus on Talk and Trust

Change is often seen as creative and necessary. It can be invigorating, in the sense of a fresh start. But change is also almost irrepressibly hard. When we first try to give up a personal habit on our own, most of us backslide terribly. When change is imposed from the outside, we resist. And when one person in a group changes, everyone else may have trouble adapting.

Change tests our ideas about ourselves, others, how the world works, and what’s real or normal or fair. Most people don’t enjoy change unless they’ve specifically chosen it for themselves, and even then, the details may take effort and energy.

Taking Up the Challenges of Change

Here’s one small-scale, but meaningful example of a disruptive change: A middle school girl gets her hair cut short. The look suits her, and the adults in her life compliment her on her beauty, taste, and maturity. Her friends, however, after an initial flurry of excitement — “You look like you’re 16!” — withdraw from her. They all wear their hair shoulder-length or longer, in popular styles. They all look alike while she is clearly, proudly, different.

Or here’s an example of a change that is drastically disrupting: Several long-married couples have been in the news lately because one spouse has undergone transgender surgery, yet the couples have chosen to stay married, maintain their households, calm their relatives, and continue to raise their children together.

Most organizational change falls somewhere between merely looking different and a complete alteration of basic nature. Although individuals are literally paid to absorb the changes that occur in their organizations, there is still great potential for upheaval. Think of your own experiences with change, and how your professional and personal life may have been thrown into turmoil by shifting work assignments, procedural details, compensation plans, bosses, and even corporate cultural norms.

Building a Strong Foundation for Change

When you’re the sponsor or host of the change, how can you help other people, who may feel awkward, frightened, or unsettled, move more comfortably over to your side? Think of your role as a kind of project manager whose tasks, deliverables, responsibilities, and milestones are clear and progressive. Constant communication helps: Start by explaining what’s going on and why and how the change will take place, and continue by checking in with people to see how it’s going for them.

But what makes a real difference — as demonstrated by the couples who have managed to stay together despite seismic shifts in their marriages — is an underlying context that serves as a kind of scaffolding for the change: a commitment to shared values, a deep relationship of trust, and dedication to mutual happiness.

Doesn’t it seem worth it to try to build that kind of scaffolding into all your relationships, making them solid and strong enough to withstand the disruptions caused by life’s ordinary and extraordinary changes?

Onward and upward,

LK

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5 thoughts on “To Make Change Successful, Focus on Talk and Trust”

  1. Great thoughts, Liz. I think you hit on a critical variable: the level of trust in the relationship(s). The process of change is so much smoother and manageable when there is a high level of mutual trust and respect. Without it, most change efforts are doomed from the beginning.

    Take care,

    Randy

    • Randy, you know I agree with you about the importance of trust, and how people almost “can’t afford” to change if they don’t believe that they’ll be safe during and after. I hate to agree with the “doomed” part — but I certainly have been in organizations where people were actually replaced as a way to start over, because the leadership couldn’t build (or rebuild) trust or respect — an awful shame.

      Stay in touch.

  2. Liz, as always a very insightful post. As I am reading the post, the thought that kept coming up for me is that this is great info once you know you are in the midst of ‘change’, but what is the process you use to know ‘when’ is the right time for change? And what do you do first once you know changes need to be made in our businesses? Any feedback is appreciated. Best, Matt

    • Thank you, Matt. Good questions. A couple of things strike me. It could be the right time for change if you notice that something doesn’t “feel” right, or as soon as you come to understand that the current conditions are not creating the result you want.

      Given that “talk and trust” — candid, supportive communication — is a crucial underlying basis for successful change, productive early step for a business leader at any level would be to identify the other people who are important to both the desired state as well as any folks who may be standing in the way of it, and open dialogue with them. Even the most charismatic, powerful leaders can’t change an organization single-handedly! What you discuss depends on who they are, what they care about, and what you want to accomplish.

      Good luck as you think these things through!

      LK

 

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