When Things Change at the Office

The Only Constant Thing is Change.

We hear these phrases often, yet until a change affects us personally, we don’t take much notice. Life at work goes on, routines continue and work progresses. When a major shake-up hits, it’s another story. Suddenly, everyone seems out of sorts, work falls behind, people take sick days and the atmosphere dissolves into one of confusion or apathy. It’s hard to concentrate on the task at hand, water-cooler talk rises, and rumours run through the office.

Yet, as the saying says, change is inevitable. Companies get bought and sold, a new senior executive brings a different management style, existing policies and procedures are updated, roles and responsibilities are altered. And your staff is not always happy with the change.

Introducing a change—whether a new organizational structure or boss, revised procedures or reporting requirements—can be much more successful by following a few simple steps, all based on looking at things from an employee’s point of view:

Be Upfront about What’s Going On

Imagine you are an employee and suddenly the entire management team spends days in the boardroom in hush-hush meetings. No one knows what’s going on, so speculation spreads like wildfire through the company. People spend more time gossiping about what-if scenarios than working. One day, they show up for work and have new bosses, are reassigned to different jobs or get handed termination notices. And then the new management team gives a speech about how valued the survivors are and hey, let’s all get back to work.

As part of the management team, you may not see this scenario the same way. You know the hours of hard work needed before a major change is announced and how difficult some of the decisions are to make, especially those involving staff. There’s no doubt the need for confidentiality is usually high when a major reorganization occurs, but communication with employees about the change as soon as possible will make a big difference in how the new environment is accepted. Get everyone together and discuss why the change was necessary; share details (what’s going to happen when); and the benefits to the organization. The reality is the change was needed and although some staff may feel confused by it, do your best to be open and honest.

This is the point where most employees tune into “Radio WIIFM”—What’s In It For Me. Be prepared to accept that not everyone will see the change as optimal. Long term employees may prefer to keep things just the way they are, others might feel they lack the training for a newly assigned role, or are overqualified. They may not like the choice of new boss, or might disagree with the new and improved way of doing things.

Share the Plan and Get People Involved

One of the most effective means to get people to buy-in to a new change is to engage them in the process. Too often, managers overlook a valuable resource—the people who work for them. The idea of asking staff to help integrate the new change can seem foreign. After all, isn’t it a manager’s job to “manage change”? Your employees carry a wealth of knowledge and experience, yet we tend to feel, as managers, we need to sort out every detail. Why not ask your staff their opinion on the best way to incorporate the change? Make a chart of the old and new ways, and pros and cons of both (this helps to dispel the rose coloured glasses memory of the past—not everything was perfect, otherwise things would still be done that way). Hold brainstorming sessions, help them become excited about possibilities. And make sure you give credit to them, whenever an idea develops into a new practice or procedure. This is leadership—heads above management and you don’t need to be an executive in the organization to practice it.

Treat Difficult Employees as Individuals

If an employee continues to have trouble adjusting to the change, it can reflect in a poor attitude and declining work performance. He may not seem to understand this approach won’t help him in the long run and your frustration, as a manager, can rise.

Take the time to meet with the staff member, ask about his long-term goals, his comfort level with the change and find out specifically what’s bothering him. He may have some valuable insight to offer that he feels was overlooked and no one took the time to ask him. Or, if he just doesn’t like the new way of doing things, and longs for the old days, it may be time for a frank discussion. He is being paid to do a specific job and it’s reasonable to expect good work performance. If there are no extenuating circumstances such as a lack of training or understanding of his responsibilities, ask if there is anything else he’s dealing with.

If you can rule out emotional or physical challenges, and it appears his reaction to the change is the main issue, help him think through it. It’s well known that anger and resentment kills careers. Discuss the connection between this self-destructive behavior and related outcomes. Choose the behaviour, choose the outcome, is a way of looking at this. Many otherwise intelligent people can act out when things aren’t going their way. The reality is, however, when a change is introduced, it signals a new way of looking at things and employees who respond with negativity and resistance do themselves (and the organization) no favours.

It’s up to you, however, to handle these situations with tact and diplomacy. Speak privately to your employee, don’t target them in public. All employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and often the chance to speak in confidence with a counsellor can help them through this time, and regain a sense of commitment to the organization.


It’s unrealistic to expect your staff will just carry on as usual right away. They need time to absorb the change and adjust. And so do you. Work on the change together and see results faster.

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