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How to Attend to the Human Element in Change Management

Jeff Myhre

Jeff Myhre

change management

change management

“Change? Change? Why do we need more change? Aren’t things bad enough already?” – attributed to Lord Salisbury speaking to Queen Victoria.

Lord Salisbury lurks in every organization when it comes to change management. Actually, he lurks in almost all of us. The great irony is that life is all about constant change, and change is the one thing we would rather not do. It takes us out of our comfort zone and put us in situations we aren’t necessarily prepared for.

Planning vs. Implementing

On paper, it’s easy enough to create a plan for change. Implementation would be easy as well – if human beings were not involved. Business people are, in many ways, intellectually related to economists and both tend to posit that humans behave rationally. And we don’t. Not always. In some cases, hardly ever. Managing change is about managing those who are called “resistors.”

I went through significant change twice in five years at a single Wall Street firm in the 1990s. The first was easy to sell me on; I got moved to a job I wanted. The second was much tougher. I was moved from the job I wanted to the newly-created position of web content writer – the corporate website in the 1990s viewed as a dead-end where I worked. I got the message. I moved on. Ironically, I learned enough about websites to launch a few later in my career and to write for several. Had anyone known how the internet was going to change everything, selling me on the job would have been easy. But in the first instance, I was an ambassador for the change. In the second, I was a resistor – professional and correct at all times, but not a fan of the change.

Sources of Resistance

The literature on change management is pretty clear. Resistance to changes arise from two different sets of questions: can I do it (mastery) and what becomes of me (belonging)? Managing change requires you to successfully address both.

stress in the workplace

Mastery issues are the easier ones to address, I believe. Either the skills are there, or they are not. If not, training will be provided, or it won’t. In short, either the staff member can do the job or will be helped to do the job or won’t have the job at all. “We are confident you can do it” or “We know you can learn what you need and we are going to help you” covers the first two and can be very positive statements to improve employee engagement. As for the latter, “we have a different position we want you to take” or “we want to help you find something that moves your career forward” can take the sting out of the situation.

And that brings us to belonging. When a person joins an organization, there is an implicit contract of mutual obligations and benefits. Change means altering the deal. Alter it too much, and people stop identifying with the group as they used to, often for the worse. “This isn’t what I signed up for” is all too common a complaint.

If the employee unilaterally changed the bargain by showing up late, or not doing part of the job or doing a different job, HR would be all over it. HR needs to be all over a unilateral change by the organization as well. Basically, it can’t be unilateral. Change management needs to address “what’s in it for me?” Explain to the employee how this makes his or her job better (more money, opportunity, more control), and sell the change as an improvement, not just for the whole organization but for the individual as well. And yes, if you need to change the compensation package, then you shouldn’t hesitate to do so.


In my case all those years ago, I was not a resistor because of mastery issues. I was pretty secure in my writing talents, having been a professional writer for 10 years at that stage of my career. I was a resistor because the belonging aspect of my career went unaddressed. I took the move as a demotion, even though there was no change in my title, pay, seniority or anything else. I felt that my contribution to the firm was less valued, and from there, it was just a matter of time.

Change management is not easy because people are not easy. But you can overcome the Lord Salisburys.

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