What HR Can Do To Give Change a Chance

I would argue that Change, as a process never fails, because things always change. It is more accurate to say that we fail to get the results we wanted, or needed or anticipated. Change is a subtle, natural force and it can't be turned on and off, it has to be harnessed. If we think about how sailors use the wind and tides, or how farmers use rivers to irrigate their fields we have a better idea of the required attitude.

"Wisdom sails with wind and time"
John Florio

Change happens when we align ourselves with the natural forces in any system. If we feed things they grow; they grow where there is space (opportunities), light (attention) and nourishment. When King Canute commanded the waves to retreat he was held up to ridicule, but when a manager commands "Change", people seem to think this is reasonable.

People will only do what they believe is in their interests to do. Let's deconstruct that sentence, and look at some of the key words. They have to believe it is in their interests. If we fail to cover all three of these bases, then they won't 'play'. So, taking those elements one at a time:-

  1. They: it is what the staff think and feel that is crucial. The opinion of the company or their manager is only important to the degree that they hold influence / power over the individual. The greater the respect, trust or relationship that you have, then the more they will listen to you. However, never shortcut the step of explaining why this is something they need to do.
  2. Believe: This is a bit like a game of Monopoly, you can not move out of Jail until you have thrown a double. Nor can you begin your change programme till you have won people over. It maybe you need to start on something simpler or smaller first to gain their confidence.
  3. Their: everybody needs to know What Is in it For Me. We have been programmed by the forces of Nature and Evolution to survive, and each time we are asked to do something, some primitive part of our brain checks to see it helps our survival. If it feels too dangerous then we won't do it. If the environment is one where we are not allow to make our feelings known we will say "Yes boss", and ignore it in every way we can. It should be pointed out that management use this tactic all the time, but it is called 'political savvy' when they do it rather than 'resistance'.

Too often well meaning managers try to say "Thank you" with M&S vouchers, flowers or days go-carting. In themselves, these are not bad things; they are just no substitute showing genuine, unconditional appreciation of the individuals and their efforts. Most people are part of a pack and they need a leader who inspires them and makes them feel safe. The safest member of the pack is the most valuable one. These are very powerful and very ancient drives, and not to be ignored. We all long for the approval of 'parent'1 figures and in our world and bosses fall into that category. However, just saying "Well done" really doesn't do it. You have to actually mean it, people can tell the difference.2 You need to show that you have seen the real them and appreciated their unique contribution.

After a merger I acquired a new boss who thrilled me initially by his fulsome "Well done!"s but after a while, I realised that he said the same thing every time, and so I started to ignore it, and ended up almost resenting his inability to differentiate between the good-enough and the good work. HR needs to understand this dynamic and guide and coach line managers in these areas.

It is a cliché to say that everyone is unique but it is true, and deep within us, we know this and we long for people to see, recognise and appreciate our unique gifts. Doing this makes us feel special, and this is a very heady 'drug' and we will go a very long way for more of it. However, I repeat, for it to work, it has to be real.

Change is a very human process and requires sensitivities and skills that the modern workplace tends not to value or nurture. There are few courses on sensitivity: communication courses deal with slide decks rather than telling your truth. HR have the opportunity, and hopefully the training, to be more aware and help those line managers who are less able in these areas, and support staff who are affected by this inability.

Too often businesses regard and treat their people as 'human resources'. This is an accountant's view of people as assets; indeed we often see in the company accounts "Our people are our greatest assets." This leads to a rather mechanistic view of people. The business wants 'reliable processes' where things happen the same way every time. However, during a period of change, people are afraid, whether they admit it or not. They need to be cared for and looked after if they are to perform. There is a huge opportunity for HR to step into this 'care vacuum'. If HR can demonstrate that they, and the business they represent, truly want the best for their staff, and will look after them, then, knowing this, the staff become far more trusting and less change resistant.

"First you need only look: Notice and honour the radiance of Everything about you... Play in this universe. Tend All these shining things around you: The smallest plant, the creatures and objects in your care. Be gentle and nurture. Listen..." Anne Hillman

HR has to become the part of the company that looks after people rather than processes them and their records. I was an accountant for 25 years, and I always thought that there was little difference between the accounts department and the HR one, apart from the things they counted. Managers are there to get the job done, but they are subject to all sorts of stresses and pressures, HR should be there to catch people when their managers can't see what is required. They should bring objectivity to the care process. They do have the time, they should have the skills. However, as long as their prime role is 'Hire'em 'n' Fire 'em' then they will not be trusted and immediately become part of the problem for the staff.

By recognising Change as part of Nature rather than an industrial process we are much more likely to approach it with the care and sensitivities we need to make it successful. If you still aren't convinced, then think back to some of the really good teachers either you or your children had… what were they like? They weren't all about processes, flow charts, slide decks and emails were they? They listened, they got down to your level, they excited and encouraged you, and, when necessary, they picked you up, brushed you off and told you "Never mind.. it'll be all right next time"

"He who nurtures benevolence for all creatures within his heart overcomes all difficulties and will be the recipient of all types of riches at every step." Chanakya

Many mangers feel that they have to check 'the real them' at the office door and only pick up the mantle again once they get home to their kids. However, if they dared tried using some of these softer skills, awareness and intuitions to bring along their staff with them they would be vastly more successful. Business might need a hard-nose, but it also requires a soft-heart to make Change happen, HR should be at the very centre of this. A successful change leader knows which organ to use and when!


  1. Parent-Child mode - Transactional Analysis
  2. Spotting the Bull

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