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June 18, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 25
 
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Deciding to Change: Trusting

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When organizations change by choice, people who are included in the decision process understand the issues. Whether they agree with the decision or not, they participate in the decision in some way. But not everyone is included in the process. What about those who are excluded?
Lake Chaubunagungamaug sign

Lake Chaubunagungamaug sign. The lake is known by various names, including Lake Webster and Lake Char-gogg-agogg-manchaugg-agogg-cha-bun-a-gun-ga-maugg. It was shortly after moving to Massachusetts that I was first told of the latter name and its translation by a native of Massachusetts. The translation I heard was once put forward by Laurence J. Daly jokingly in an article in a Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper as "You fish on your side, I fish on my side, and nobody fish in the middle." The hoax is now almost 100 years old and it is still going strong. I do believe that one reason why the hoax translation is so widely accepted is that it is good advice. It is a prescription for peace among peers based on trust. Many organizations would do well to incorporate such a principle into their cultures. Photo courtesy Bree and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

In many organizations, a time comes when their people decide to do something new. It's a hard decision. Sometimes these organizations are forced to change; that change is difficult, too, but in a different way. The change I want to consider here is the unforced change — the change we choose. Choosing to step into the unknown creates tensions in the organization that challenge leaders, break relationships, and disrupt power bases. People within these organizations sometimes experience this disruption in very personal ways. Exploring those experiences, and the ways people cope with them, can help us understand how better to plot a course into the unknown.

Let's begin with those who aren't parties to the discussions leading to the decision to change. Their opinions aren't sought. Indeed, they're often carefully insulated from any hint of the coming change. Sometimes the change is announced to them after the information is released to the media and the general public. Sometimes it's never announced. They can feel excluded, devalued, and distrusted.

The experience is painful. When it first happens to people, usually early in their careers, it can feel like betrayal. Some have been very loyal to the organization. Some were even passionate about it. Perhaps they've relocated away from family and friends, to homes better suited to the needs of the employer. And now the employer has made a change, one that seems purely elective on the part of the employer, without consultation, and without any warning.

In careers that span 30 years or more, learning of changes in this way might happen many times. After the second or third such experience, possibly at multiple companies, some people come to expect to be treated not as fully human, but as "human resources." After several experiences of being
excluded from major organizational
decisions, some people come to
expect to be treated not as fully
human, but as "human resources."
They become reluctant to identify personally with the organizations that employ them. Initiative and motivation fade. Work becomes a means of earning money, rather than an avenue for seeking fulfillment.

Can anyone be honestly surprised when these people become cynical, resentful, distrustful, or even subversive?

Some organizational leaders accept this as inevitable. They deal with the consequences by removing from the organization those people most likely to adopt "unhelpful" attitudes — usually the older employees, and those whose skills and knowledge are perceived as least compatible with the new direction adopted by the organization. These leaders mistakenly view as a cost of change the loss of experienced people who best understand how existing systems work, and why they are the way they are. Fears of the consequences of "premature leaks" to the public are almost surely exaggerated compared to the losses incurred from cynicism and subversion.

We can limit these effects by trusting more employees, and including them in deliberations about changes to come. People who feel trusted reward with support those who trust them. Next in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Deciding to Change: Choosing  Next Issue
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101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

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See also Organizational Change and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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