Change Has You Panicked? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a regional director of compliance for a global services company. Covid has been a trial for everyone. Most of my people had never worked from home before and were not set up to succeed working in what are, for many, cramped and noisy conditions. On top of this, Covid has resulted in a massive spike in demand for our services. On its face this is good, but the necessary restrictions make it almost impossible for us to meet demand. The teams that have to work together to ensure delivery are at each other’s throats.

Enter a new regional EVP who is hellbent on making his mark. He is engineering massive changes, most of which will result in outsourcing to areas where people are willing to work for less. The changes include a big move to digitization and automation.

One of my people called me in a panic when he was asked to interview with the consulting firm hired to create the plan. He had spent a couple of hours outlining his exact job and how he did it. “Are they interviewing me so they can automate everything and make me redundant?” he asked me, point blank. Things are happening so fast that I was unprepared. I said something half-baked in response. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I hadn’t considered the implications of what is happening.

Now I am the one in a panic. Why would our senior leadership decide to do this now? People are already suffering so much. The human cost of this is going to be staggering. I need some perspective on this.

Panicked

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Dear Panicked,

I have heard this from so many of our clients, and it’s a reflection of what’s happening at our small company as well. Automation and digitization are coming at all of us like a bullet train. Think about it. Industry leaders have accustomed all of us to getting exactly what we want, how we want, when we want it.

I recently went on a website to understand what it would cost me to engage a company for a small but complex specialized service. I expected the website to give me a short worksheet and generate a quote. Nope. I got four emails asking to set up a conversation, and someone called me three times to discuss my project. I was still in the speculation phase and wasn’t ready to talk to a person who I knew would try to sell me and then hound me. I simply wanted to access a ballpark cost to help me plan. Another website did this for me. Guess which one I will probably use?

This is why your senior leadership is doing this now. It’s because they want to take the noise, static, potential for inevitable human error, and wasted time out of the system. The additional pressures of Covid have exposed weaknesses in our characters and in our systems. Pressure has been applied to your current systems and you say your teams are now “at each other’s throats.” We tend to blame people but, really, this is a clear sign that your systems are failing you. Your executive leadership wants to make it easier for your customers to do business with you—to get exactly what they want, the way they want it. Because your leaders know that if your customers can’t do that, your company will eventually go the way of the buggy whip. Or Blockbuster.

It isn’t even that your leaders want to minimize head count—although that is always the fantasy promise. In some cases, they might be able to reduce the number of employees they need to get the job done but in many cases, they won’t. They will need the same amount of people doing different things. In cases where senior leaders seek to leverage automation, the ideal is not so much to reduce headcount, but to minimize the time-consuming and error-prone aspects of processes used to produce necessary results. Most processes, before they are properly automated, depend on humans doing exactly what needs to be done, in the right order, correctly, in volumes that are not humanly possible in the needed time frame. In short, these processes will inevitably cause errors, missed deadlines and conflict. Aren’t those human costs worth eliminating?

A colleague shared something a former boss used to say that has stuck with her: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like obsolescence even less.” Touché.

The change coming at you is sudden. For this, I do blame your new EVP. Change is hard and it’s harder when people are already stressed. The brain loves certainty. When you can’t offer that, you can at least share what you do know. People respond to change in predictable ways. You can equip your leaders to deal with change through effective methods they can use to help their people manage themselves through the discomfort. Check out our material on Leading People Through Change—even a high-level overview can help you make a plan.

You need to focus your attentions on three big buckets:

  1. Understand exactly what the change is designed to achieve. Find ways to articulate it that will best suit each different audience, so that it will make sense to them.
  2. Figure out how to leverage your position power and ability to influence so that you can better identify threats to humans and mitigate the pain of loss.
  3. Devise a plan to help each of your direct reports—and help them help each of their direct reports—to navigate what is coming. This plan must involve a lot of listening and communication on your part.

Helping your people hide from change would not be a favor to them. In fact, in the end, it would feel like a betrayal.

I hope this is the perspective you were looking for—although I suspect you were hoping for something else. Max Dupree said “The first job of a leader is to define reality.” So putting your head in the sand and hoping this will go away is not an option. For that I am sorry. I work with many leaders, every single one of whom has wanted to go to bed and pull the cover over their heads. And some have actually done it. For a little while. But then they get out of bed and do what needs to be done. Go to bed if you need to. But then, you know what you need to do.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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