Social skills and workplace ch-ch-changes
September 28, 2013 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Very soon, I will be in a position where I will need to help lead a major change in the workplace, and one where many of the people I work with will be unhappy. How do I do this?

Without revealing too many details, I'm going to be involved in a major shuffle of positions in my workplace. This change will benefit my department, but it means dissolving another department and moving some of the staff over to mine. This is also going to mean a major shift in responsibilities of that staff. Of course, there is a battle of territories going on, and the staff that are moving are unhappy, even though they understand that this is a done deal.

I know that I will be involved in a number of discussions where I need to communicate to the new staff that they will need to shrink and re-think their priorities and allegiance to the old department. I am not their boss - I am more like a collaborator, with whom we are figuring this all out together. But, they need to collaborate with me to meet my department's goals.

I am bad at these kinds of conversations. I tend to be very direct and frank, and am not very good at the politicking often needed in such situations. I also get a bit impatient and want things to move forward quickly, especially when it seems clear that people are hanging on to things that just have no place in the new environment. I also value honesty and don't want to lead people on to expect that they will be able to keep part of the old department when in reality they won't.

I want to be able to communicate that I support and appreciate these staff and want to work together to our mutual benefit, while also being clear that things will not be the same as they were, and that they need to let go of some of what they previously held dear in their jobs.

Does anyone have any advice or can you point me to any helpful resources on navigating such major workplace changes, and especially handling interpersonal conversations? This is an academic setting, if that makes a difference.
posted by Ms. Toad to Human Relations (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, there's little "collaboration" in these situations, would it be helpful not to think of it this way?

Almost nothing as an employee is more frustrating than being told their input is valuable when at the end of the day it's all pretty much a set of orders that they have to comply with. It may be that your anxiety about "politicking" is about exactly the skills required to lie about it not really being a collaboration, or that their "collaboration" is limited to going along with what has been decided.

Over the years I would have loved it if those who were tasked with communicating company changes approached it as a colleague, with the tone that "this is the way things are now and we're all in this together," vs. playing piggy in the middle, getting feedback that is destined to be ignored, and basically not being straight about the whole thing (AKA politicking).
posted by rhizome at 2:08 PM on September 28, 2013 [10 favorites]

I totally understand the use of a word like "collaboration," but I don't think that's what it is. Are they your equals in forging a new environment?

On the other hand, I'm not quite sure what it (your role) is instead. At the end of the day, are new responsibilities and procedures exclusively your call? Mostly your call, rubberstamped by a superior who doesn't want the trouble of dealing of it with? Are you merely giving advice to people making the decisions? Or are the decisions all already made and you're just there to try and smooth ruffled feathers? I don't mean to come off sounding like an inquisitor, but that's what I'd be wondering about you if I were in their shoes.

I'd suggest that in working with them, your best bet is to (a) make it clear, albeit in gentle language, what your role is; and (b) make it clear to them why they want to work with you and be on your team, vs. collectively trying to undermine you, or make you a scapegoat for any failures. e.g. "At the end of the day it's Jane's call, but Jane wants me to gather ideas about ways to make things less bumpy. There'll be enough unavoidable problems. We don't want to cause more problems where's no good reason to." If at all possible, a stage-setting meeting with someone who's unambiguously their new boss, or a better yet, a step up from that is a good way for your role to be formally introduced to these people.
posted by tyllwin at 2:27 PM on September 28, 2013

Response by poster: To clarify (or not!): this transition is messy, and the roles are ill-defined. The higher ups have not done a good job communicating how the new roles are going to function, which is part of the reason it's now coming down to me and other in the department to communicate how things are going to work for the new people.

It's exactly the kinds of things rhizome mentions that I hope to avoid - I want to be honest and not to string along anyone, but I also don't want to alienate anyone (as much as is possible) by being to direct or too frank, especially since I'm technically not the boss.

So, I also appreciate any advice on how to use gentle language in these kinds of conversations.
posted by Ms. Toad at 2:39 PM on September 28, 2013

I'm not great at office politics, but I'm going through something similar at my work.

To start, I think you're going to need to figure out what's in it for them and keep that as a theme in many of your conversations.

In the beginning you'll probably need to listen to a lot of "stories" but towards the end of the stories you can redirect towards something positive or realistic. Like "we need to make this work" or "this is the direction that management has chosen". As time goes on, hopefully you'll have to listen less to the stories and people will become more comfortable with the change.

A lot of it is just fear and if you can address the fears, things should smooth out.
posted by icanbreathe at 2:40 PM on September 28, 2013

I think if I was in the your co-workers' position, I would appreciate a conversation that began, "Tell me what your concerns are. I want to listen and understand you and get everything out on the table. I'll tell you in advance that a lot of this I do not personally have control over and we're going to have to do a lot of work, but as much as I am able I'd like to make this go as smoothly as possible for everyone." And then really listen.

You want to begin by having an honest conversation where people can be open about what it is they are not liking, so it doesn't get stuffed down and become an object of resentment and backbiting. And so you can have the conversation of "Well, I am hearing you, but there's not much any of us can do about that one so we are just going to have to find a way to make it work" on the parts where you need that conversation.
posted by mermily at 3:56 PM on September 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

"I tend to be very direct and frank"

That is exactly what you want to do. As others have mentioned, nobody likes it when unpleasant changes are tarted up with well-meant lies.

Again, as others mention, have a list of genuine advantages to them ready to point out, but just tell it like it is. They'll appreciate that.

And remember, it's not personal. It's work. And if other people let work stuff get to them, that's their problem, not yours.
posted by colin_l at 3:56 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would not make it your job to try to get them to let go of their beloved projects in which they've invested their life energies. Instead, maybe together you can identify the projects that must take priority. If the other projects fit around the edges, could they not continue working on them? (After all, this is academia, where people sacrifice salary for the ability to pursue Knowledge and Truth.)

You might plan a meeting to collaboratively set some shared priorities (or discuss those set by the grant or whatever) and then identify who will play what role to accomplish them and the timing of a few milestones. Then everyone can write their own workplans from there. Maybe you have a second meeting to compile those workplans by project team and see if they add up in a workable way. The sooner people regain a sense of commitment to the new goals, and a sense of control and self-determination in their own work to reach that goal, the better.

As for tone, if you're really the collaborator, I'd go with, "I'm sorry, it must be really weird for you guys, it's a little weird for us too but at least we don't have to change buildings. But I am very glad to have you because of how skilled your team is. I've always wanted our X department to have a little more of your Y perspective [e.g., I've always thought our engineering work would benefit from stronger attention to its architectural design]." Commiserate and sympathize, then move on in a way that shows you don't see them as second class and that you actually want to create something new that values and incorporates their talents and inclinations. When you're talking to those lower on the hierarchy, do a bit less "doesn't this suck" and a bit more "I'm really happy to welcome all of you. Thanks for being willing to join us to accomplish this ambitious new mission."
posted by salvia at 3:58 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Read about Organizational Development and Change Management. You need to have a proper plan in place, or you will encounter the kind of resistance you're afraid of. There are lots of these kind of business books at the local bookstore or library. ADKAR model, Star model etc. But you need to assess the change, the impacts, the communication plan, everything. Don't take this lightly. Change Management is huge.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:24 PM on September 28, 2013

One thing I've found that's helpful is genuinely caring about people. I'm leading a huge change project right now. The issue we're having is my team has a database, and we share our data to many other departments. Some of these departments have a hard time when we change the structure of the data, and their inability to cope slows our projects down. I've been tasked with finding a way to deal with this, and one of my peers is pissed off because he perceives me as being too soft. Let me give some examples:

His language: "We need to set rules about the data. If people can't abide by these rules, then they can't have our data. End of story."

My language: "I'd like to design some rules for working with the data. Then, let's take those rules out to the departments and work together and help them transition to the new rules. Let's find out what their pain points are and why they've chosen to design the systems the way that they're designed. They aren't designing things in a way just to piss us off; there has to be a reason."

His language: "People need to just cope and adapt. Their systems are not my problem."

My language: "I want to know what lead these teams to the decisions they made. There must be a good reason, and if we understand those reasons, maybe we can come up with a great solution that works well for everyone."

The difference is, his motivation is "my projects are slowing down and these people are pissing me off; to hell with them and their special snowflake systems. If everyone just listened to me, we wouldn't have these issues." (Yes, he's actually said this, so I'm not putting words in his mouth!) My motivation is, I have to work with these people until I get a new job. I want to establish a relationship with them, treat them with respect, so they begin to trust me and we can find solutions together. That way, if they are considering making a change in the future, maybe they'll include me in the initial discussions, and we can make sure their changes work for us as well. It's a give and take.

I would suggest really thinking about your motivations. When I'm impatient and don't understand why people can't just X, that comes through. Instead, I remind myself that people don't do things for dumb reasons - if you step back and ask, what's the process? how was it designed? What inputs made you decide to do X instead of Y? Or, in your case, when talking with a coworker who doesn't want to give up a project: What's the project? How does this project bring value to the university? Do you see a way it can benefit the new department? How could we integrate it with our current processes?

One question you'll notice is missing: "Why?" Because "Why did you...?" can imply a value judgement, an implied "that was a dumb thing to do", and you don't want to put people on the defensive any more than they already are.

Also remember: this stuff takes time, especially upfront. But! It does pay you back. If you take the time now to establish the relationships, and therefore some trust, it can help things work a lot more smoothly. People will be easier to work with because they believe you care about them and what they're working on, and might not be as antagonistic as they otherwise would be in a difficult situation.
posted by RogueTech at 6:51 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

based on your update, i think you're first step is to go to your bosses and make sure you understand what they want in terms of what they see for the new roles, how they want information framed, and to what extent you are free to make your own decisions. it's hard because you're essentially telling your bosses they aren't doing their job by raising the question, but i think you need to do it to avoid further problems down the line.

make sure you understand their general idea about how the want it to work. then, you need to ask them about how much flexibility they have if it's not working out (maybe the person doesn't fit the role, or the role doesn't make sense given what you've learned from implementing it) and you need to clarify the process for fixing it (do they just need to be cc'ed on decisions you made? do you need their buy-in before making a decision?)

once you've cleared that up you can be honest with the employees. you can tell them the plan so far, and to what extent it's flexible if they have some frustrations or if their roles are not meeting the goals of the company.
posted by cupcake1337 at 11:00 PM on September 28, 2013

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