Popular wisdom holds that it’s in the nature of people to resist change. Therefore, we have to find ways to overcome this resistance. We have to teach employees to embrace change, seemingly no matter what it is. This view of change in organizations has always bothered me. So I was pleased to see journalist Stefan Stern’s recent column in the Financial Times challenging this popular wisdom.
Stern contrasts two examples of major infrastructure change in London. One was the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow and the other was moving the cross-Channel train service to a new station. Both of these were major projects that involved thousands of people and complex project management. Apparently, from what Stern reported, opening the new train station was a great success and opening the new airport terminal was a disaster. The difference was preparation, both in terms of skills and emotions. Train station employees were prepared and emotionally engaged in the effort; airport terminal employees were not adequately trained, systems were deficient, and nobody responded to employee complaints about these problems. Stern writes:
Managers sometimes complain that their people “hate change”. That is just not true. People hate stupid change, change that they have no influence over, change that is simply imposed on them...To err is human. We all do it, even – you will just have to believe me here – journalists. But looking back at the T5 fiasco, it seems clear that a bit of honest, straight talk (and action) at the right time could have helped avoid much of the subsequent aggro.
I think he’s right. Most people don’t hate change. People change jobs, change homes, change vacation locations, change food, change cars, change their hair and the way they look, change doctors, and change partners. In fact, many people seek out change in their lives. What they resist is “stupid change.” They want to understand the rationale for change, they want to have input, they want to be informed about what and how things will happen, they want to know their roles and how they will be affected by the change, and they want to feel confident that they have the knowledge and skills to be effective in the new situation.