Is Change Management the Primary Domain of the HR Strategist?

Guest Contributorby Dr. Christopher Lee | Posted | Communication

Is Change Management the Primary Domain of the HR Strategist?

In their roles as executives on senior leadership teams, chief human resources officers (CHROs) must not only embrace change, but lead change efforts.

Strategy at its essence is about positioning an organization to compete in tomorrow’s marketplace. Strategy is focused on the future.

Change may be necessary because of a market opportunity, as a reaction to a competitor’s actions, or in response to a crisis. Examples include: planning to enter different markets, redesigning products due to a competitor’s new products, or changes made in response to a natural disaster that affects employees' ability to work.

In each of these situations, people must learn to adapt to new circumstances. Therefore, CHROs must embrace their role as change architects and leaders.

Helping individuals accept change

Whether change is desired or required, people must either learn new ways of thinking or working, or develop new skills. Learning to think innovatively, learning to work collaboratively or use new techniques, or gain additional training and education are all change processes.

Change rarely comes easily. However, it is easier when it is planned and managed.

Who is in charge of helping employees evolve, adapt, cope with, and incorporate newness or change into their work lives? The human resources function has an opportunity and obligation to help individuals accept change and buy-in to positive visions of the future.

If we do not enable employees to wholly accept change, we should at least be able to get employees to not resist it.

Whether an organization is trying to get salespeople to think about sales and patronage, to teach customer representatives to appreciate cultural differences in service delivery, or ensure accountants embrace the company’s values—all of this involves change management.

Suffice it to say, change is not easy, even when we want and expect it, because human beings are complex creatures. With this in mind, organizational change would seem to be a sizeable challenge.

Concentrate on the basics and focus on the essentials

Fortunately, there are some patterns from which we can learn. When it comes to change management, my advice is to keep it simple:

  • Plan the change with specific goals in mind
  • Involve employees and all stakeholders in the initial design
  • Communicate what is to be changed and why it is important
  • Train employees to work a new way or in the new environment
  • Implement the change
  • Reinforce the change by rewarding good behaviors and redirecting errant ones
  • Evaluate the success of the initiative
  • And then start the process over after having learned lessons along the way.

The above steps are major change management activities. Add to these a double dose of communication at each stage and this is a solid primer on change management.

Harvard Business School’s John Kotter is considered the world’s foremost authority on organizational change and any one of his 18 books can be considered essential reading.

Develop a competency in change management

It is less important that HR managers know a specific change management methodology, than to develop a competency in change management and to take a leadership role in facilitating the change needed by their organizations. Knowing that change is needed, appreciating its complexities, knowing how to measure its impact and effectiveness, and appreciating one’s role in facilitating change are requirements for strategy management.

In a previous blog post, we discussed the role of CHRO as an organizational ambassador. This is emblematic of the critical role of communication in all change efforts.

All successful change efforts involve effective communication. Good communication determines how well change is perceived, received, and supported. Resistance occurs when people fear, doubt, or do not understand the change. 

Monitoring the impact of change on people

Additionally, HR must manage the impact of change on people. We can monitor its impact through morale, among other ways.

Do announcements of new change stimulate basic fight or flight responses? Fighting is resistance to change, flight is turnover.

Embracing change is necessary for improvement. The capacity for change fuels innovation. Flexibility and adjustments are prerequisites for effectively outmaneuvering the competition.

Human resources departments have a role in ensuring their organization develops the capacity and readiness to create, embrace, and manage change initiatives. Does the culture support change? Are employees ready and willing to respond to change? Do they understand it and its imperative?

The vital importance of change

Change requires risk, and risk is uncomfortable and uncertain. Only the bravest pursue it.

A quote by Niccolo Machiavelli says it best:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

However without change, failure is almost certain. A quote by Mark Sanborn provides a bookend response to the tenuous nature of leading and managing change:

"Your success in life isn't based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business."

It is time for HR professionals to be brave and to create, lead, and manage the future of both our organizations and our profession. Leading change is a strategic competency that every CHRO must possess.

Your Turn: What competencies do you think are critical for HR to be a change leader?

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