Change in the Workplace
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Change in the Workplace

It’s the second month of the New Year and many of us have made and broken resolutions! For me it’s ‘I’m going to lose weight and do more exercise’.  Have you ever wondered why many of us (including myself), fail to see these changes through?  I know if I have a healthy diet and exercise more, I will feel better.  So why is it so difficult to get started?  Why is it so difficult to see it through?Perhaps I am not ready to start, or I don’t want to go through months of abstinence; maybe I can’t make it stick once I have got there.  Maybe I have tried before and failed so I don’t think it will work this time.

And in the Workplace…….

We can see this in the workplace too.  How many times have you heard staff respond to changes in negative ways such as  ‘We did that in 1987 and it didn’t work’ or ‘ it will take ages to get to grips with this’, or ‘I like things the way they are’.  Change can be uncomfortable but it is unavoidable.  We are living in a world that is changing fast and as such, we must adapt if we want to survive.

If we, as managers, can handle change well, our organisation will thrive, if we don’t we may struggle to survive.

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin (a physicist and social scientist), developed a model for understanding organisational change in the 1950s and it has stood the test of time.   Lewin suggests that change goes through 3 stages:  unfreeze, change and refreeze.

The first phase of the model is unfreeze.

Lewin explained the theory using a block of ice and changing its shape.  Imagine you have a block of ice but you want to change the shape.  The only way to do this is to unfreeze the ice.  In other words, you need to warm it up to defrost the ice otherwise the block of ice will not be ready to mould into a new shape.

In an organisational context, the manager needs to prepare staff and to get them to accept that change is necessary (warming them to the change).  Honesty is key and managers should stress why things need to change. For example, it could be to improve sales, or reduce customer complaints, or to work more efficiently and make savings.  The message has to be relayed to everyone and in a way that they can understand.

This can be very challenging as you are taking people out of their comfort zone.  They like the way things are done and may see the change as a personal threat to their own security.  It can also put people off balance – however this is not a bad thing.  Yes, you are creating a mini crisis, but you can control this and it forces people to look for new ways of doing things.  Sounds harsh but without this you won’t get the buy in necessary to make the change happen.

The second phase of the model is change.

This is where you can help staff to resolve the uncertainty that they are feeling from the unfreeze stage and encourage them to look for new ways of doing things.  This can be a difficult phase for staff and managers need to be on hand to offer support and guidance and clarify any uncertainties.  This is where managers can explain how the change will benefit staff i.e. safeguard their jobs; make their jobs easier or more interesting. This phase cannot be rushed either.  It takes time for people to embrace the new ways and take an active part and this is where effective and open communication plays an important part.  It is important to involve people in the change process and where possible create short term wins to motivate and give staff a sense of achievement.  As a manager you must be visible and available to answer questions when necessary so that people continue to understand the reason for the change during the transition period.  This can take a large amount of time but this cannot be rushed or avoided.  Avoid the questions and you avoid the buy in!

The third phase of the model is refreeze.

Once the change has occurred, it is important to make this the new way of doing thing i.e. part of the culture.  Once you see people starting to embrace the change you are ready to start the refreezing process.  The way to do this is to ensure that the changes are being incorporated into everyday business and that the old ways are not slipping back in.  Find ways to sustain the change; provide training, create feedback systems and adapt the organisation structure if necessary.  It is also important to celebrate the success of the transition.  Staff need closure.  Acknowledge the journey they have travelled, the challenges that they have faced and congratulate and thank them for their hard work.  This should also help them to see that future changes won’t be as painful and will be just as successful.

In conclusion, Lewin’s Model is a straightforward way to manage change.  The next time you need to manage change follow the three steps:

Unfreeze – create the motivation to change

Change – encourage people to embrace the new ways of working

Refreeze – return the a sense of stability, embed into the culture

On a final note.  Ensure you give people time for the changes to sink in.  If you introduce another change quickly, they will start to believe that change is happening for change’s sake and the motivation required to implement new changes will be non-existent!

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