Managing the Dynamics of Change

As anybody involved in a major outsourcing initiative will tell you, change is part of the process. The people directly involved have to adapt to new ways of working and possibly to a new employer (presuming layoffs aren’t their fate).

Yet, those put in charge of overseeing the operational details in moving work to a service provider often lack the skills needed to help employees make the transition — they’re too busy setting up benchmarks, negotiating contract terms, reporting to upper management on the progress. And that can mean disaster for the effort. Sabotage of the most innocent variety (withholding information, taking a position of passive resistance, out and out morale-crushing hallway conversations) can derail schedules, energy levels and the overall outcome of the endeavor.

Managing the Dynamics of ChangeThat’s why I read Jerald M. Jellison’s Managing the Dynamics of Change (McGraw-Hill, $27.95) with interest. Are there really techniques managers and team leads can use to engage their teams during times of change? Jellison, a professor of social psychology at the University of Southern California, believes so.

Jellison has developed a J curve diagram that lays out what he calls the five stages of change — from resistance through acceptance. Stage one, the plateau, is where we start on our journey of change. We’re going along just fine doing our work; we have a high degree of mastery; we know the routine. Suddenly, news of a big change arrives. Suddenly, we’re faced with the great unknown: What will this mean to me?

After a period of turmoil and questioning, we approach stage two, the cliff. Here’s where we step into the abyss, because we feel we have no choice but to go along. “Performance drops sharply,” writes Jellison. “The Stage 1 pattern is reversed: failures now outpace successes.” The problems accumulate. We consider ourselves failures. We begin to panic. We want to escape.

That is when we begin to enter stage three, the valley. “Things begin bottoming out. Errors aren’t as frequent or as large, and workers are starting to do more things correctly.” At some point, we begin thinking, “Maybe I can, sort of, do this.”

That is when we begin our ascent, stage four. Performance improves — “impressively.” Our attitudes change. Challenges that appear insurmountable in previous stages now begin to look like obstacles we can overcome with a bit of creative problem-solving.

At some point, we make it to the mountaintop — stage five. We begin to feel good about ourselves again. We begin to think, “We should have done this long ago!” (As Jellison points out, some of the biggest naysayers “may even claim it was their idea.”

 Figure 1: The J curve of change.
The J curve of change.

Sound familiar? A lot of us have lived through the descriptions Jellison shares in the first section of his book.

He captures well the comical predictability of corporate life when he describes, “Ye Old Generic Change Speech.” This is where the leader “vividly portrays the mountaintop and the wonders we’ll behold when we get there: higher profits, improved efficiency, and happy workers everywhere. The virtues of this corporate Eden are described in glowing phrases, regardless of whether any of the leaders have ever actually been to this shining city on the hill. They’ve probably only received a postcard from a consultant who claims to have made the trip many times.”

Jellison calls these “persuasion tactics,” in which managers assume they have to change employees’ attitudes before they’ll actually move in a new direction. Rarely do they work. People may leave the vision meeting feeling good, but then reality hits and the J curve ride has begun.

His alternative? A technique he labels “activation.” It’s also known as “learning by doing.” You can change peoples’ attitudes by changing their behavior. He explains a set of tools that you can apply as the need arises and gives ample examples for how to use them.

For example, one activation tool is “the bamboo technique.” Just as bamboo bends and then snaps back when a strong wind blows through, so should you, by acknowledging the other person’s feelings. Maybe somebody on your team is complaining, “We’ll never make this work.” “You bend,” writes Jellison, “by saying, ÔYou may be right that it’s going to be challenging to make this work.'”

Then you “snap back” by describing the actions the person should try next. “After bending, you could use statements such as these:

“ÔIf you just do it a few more times, I think you’ll get it.’
“ÔKeep doing what you just did and I think it will work for you.’
“ÔLet’s try again with a little more energy and enthusiasm.'”

In other words, you get the person focused on taking a particular, concrete, doable action. And you keep doing it — because the J curve has no predetermine timeline. People adjust at their own paces.

Jellison offers up numerous “scripts,” spells out why even the tiniest of signs of progress deserve celebration, and provides several techniques for getting people started in the direction where you want them headed. His suggestions are simple and require a measure of sincerity — because they involve meeting people not at the 30,000-foot level where corporate visions often reside, but on the ground, where members of your staff are trying to do their jobs.

If you’re ready to move away from a management style that relies on “platitudinous phrases” to get people comfortable with change, Managing the Dynamics of Change offers a refreshing, humorous collection of techniques worth trying.

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Managing the Dynamics of Change by Jerald Jellison