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Turning change into opportunity

I was going about my chaotic day, rushing from one place to the next, when I received news that shook me up: My longtime editor had taken a new job at another company.

It was one of those announcements that are tricky to process. You're thrilled for the person who deserves great career rewards, and that's why you feel cruddy for engaging in a pity party.

Saying goodbye to colleagues unfortunately has become too common at many workplaces. Employees are being forced to adapt and survive, even as our bosses quit, our co-workers are downsized, our companies are sold, or corporate strategy heads in a new direction. Forget that we are attached to the way things were. The change can be traumatic.

Post-recession, "no one will emerge the same as they did coming in," said Mark Royal, a senior principal with Hay Group, a management consulting firm.

Stepping into change takes a huge shift in thinking. Most people admit that they don't know a good way to handle unsettling events, and businesses typically don't prepare workers to adapt. Some 31 percent of employees are not able to adapt to change at work, and 43 percent get the job done, but morale suffers, according to a survey conducted by Right Management, a career-management consulting firm.

Without doubt, a change, such as my editor moving on, could push me into a funk. But Royal brought to my attention that when change happens, the only thing I have total control over is my attitude. "The employee who handles change successfully looks for opportunity," Royal said. "If employees stay committed through change, it's an opportunity to motivate themselves and demonstrate their capabilities to new people in new ways."

Lourdes Echeverria realized she needed to step out of her comfort zone when the bank she worked for was sold. In the upheaval, her immediate supervisor, whom she adored, was replaced. Echeverria said she felt stressed and fearful over the changes but decided to use them to advance her career. She went to her new bosses, asked about their vision for the bank and asked to participate in decisions.

"I didn't have my old boss as a buffer, which was hard," she said. "But I saw that changes were going to happen whether I was on board or not."

Whether they admit it to staff, businesses are concerned that employees haven't embraced changes. A recent online poll by WorldatWork shows retaining critical talent is the top concern of human resources professionals. Experts believe middle managers whose work-life balance has been strained actually are the most at risk.

"Instead of gearing up to begin hiring from outside, businesses need to think about rerecruiting the hearts and minds of their current employees," said Marcia Rhodes, a spokeswoman for WorldatWork, a nonprofit focused on global human resources issues.

Peter Barron Stark, a consultant who helps businesses improve their corporate culture, is working with a law firm undergoing a change in its management structure. Stark has discovered that during change, there's typically a period where things get worse before they get better. He is advising the law associates to hang out with people embracing the change, not fighting it.

"There's a tremendous flattening of organizations, and opportunities will open," Stark said. "You want to be that person who is considered."

For their part, employers need to double their communication. Stark recommends selling employees on the problem behind the change. For example, when adopting a new record-keeping system: " 'If all other hospitals move to electronic medical records and patients have access and we don't do it, we could lose patients,' " he said. "That's selling them on the problem."

Sometimes employers just don't know how the changes will pan out. Royal suggests saying something to affected staff. "Offer up who's involved in the decision, the time horizon for having it worked out, who should you go to with questions, and when you can expect an update."

Most of us have experienced what happens when employers don't address concerns -- rumor rushes in to fill the void. "You need to give people reasons to hang on with organization through transitions -- not just rank and file, but managers, too," Royal said.

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