· Features

Outstanding balance: why HR must learn to be sure-footed on the change curve (part one)

Imposing big changes on workers will naturally be worrying for them, but with the right preparation, employees can be reassured and concerns overcome.

If there’s one thing you can count on more than the certainty of change, it’s that there’s always going to be another crisis, or a new word for it, that will set people talking and doom scrolling on Twitter.

Polycrisis, introduced at Davos 2023 by the World Economic Forum (WEF), is the latest in this trend of repackaging what we already know. An attempt to describe the tangled mess society finds itself in, it’s a word for the domino effect of the cost-of-living crisis, social unrest, recession, climate change and cyber security risks hitting now and over the next decade.

Using the COM-B approach to change management

What's the evidence for... change management?

Power dynamics: Managing change in an organisation

The other surety is that every crisis, no matter what guise it takes, is going to find its way onto HR’s plate. It’s no wonder then that HR professionals are so keen to sharpen their skills in change management.

In 2022, HR analyst Josh Bersin asked 9,000 people professionals across the world what skills they wanted to work on the most. Change and transformation came out on top.

Likewise enabling agility within companies and the profession, i.e. growing the ability to create and respond to change, is also part  of what management consultancy McKinsey deems “a new HR operating model”.

One significant impact of the pandemic is how it has helped HR develop its change capability but, as CIPD membership director David D’Souza points out, now is no time to slow down.

He says: “We need to make sure that expertise is now put to work on the weightier, strategic challenges facing organisations, rather than some of the more transactional elements.”


So, where to start?

For Laura Whittle, people change manager of the digital programme at Yorkshire Building Society (YBS), it all starts with the change curve.

She says: “Everyone in HR needs to have an understanding of the change curve.

“They need to be self-aware, have an understanding of themselves, how they react to change, how they deal with change and the shadow they cast, because we need to be leading the way in our own relationship with change in HR.”

Based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, the change curve can be used to describe employees’ emotional reaction. There are various versions of it but, broadly, change curve emotions cover: denial, resistance, exploration, acceptance, commitment, and enthusiasm.

Denial and resistance are plotted on the downward slant of the curve, indicating a negative impact from change. This can be linked to holding on to the way things are, or a reflection on the past.

Exploration, acceptance, commitment and enthusiasm are on the upward slant of the curve, denoting a positive impact. In these stages, employees are thinking of the potential change could bring and seeing it as a positive.

In practice, Whittle uses the curve to understand her own and others’ reactions to change, digging deeper into their engagement which, she says, is too often missing in change projects.

“When I was working on change projects in the past the focus for people change was often on consultation, communication and training, and there was not always a strong enough emphasis on the critical involvement and engagement of the impacted people,” she says.

A great deal of empathy is needed in the exchange, Whittle adds, and she encourages everyone leading change to stand in the shoes of those affected. With management, this helps to avoid what she calls the ‘Ta-da’ moment.

“Managers want to wait until they have all the answers before they brief somebody. That comes from a good place,” she says. “They don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know,’ they don’t want to worry somebody. “So, they wait until they have all the answers, and then they go ‘Ta-da! We’re doing this change’.”

Usually by that point, Whittle says, it’s too late for employees to get invested. She encourages managers to consider how they would feel if they were put in the same position.

She asks: “If it was you, would you like to be called into an office and told by a manager that some change impacting you is coming really soon? Or would you rather be told in advance: ‘I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what we’re thinking – what do you think?’”

"If you’ve got control of the change, you’re much more comfortable with it than if someone else is controlling it"

Paul Boustead, interim group chief people officer at the Open University, has witnessed many change projects in his career. Like Whittle, he says well-managed change is centred on collaboration.

He says: “The best type of change is when you can go to staff and say ‘be part of it’.” In 2007, Boustead helped three colleges merge to become the University of Cumbria.

“One of the really nice things about that change was we had a blank piece of paper,” he says.

“We had 10,000 staff coming from different colleges. You could really get them engaged in co-creating because there wasn’t anything there.”

He adds: “It’s about control. If you think about it in your personal life, if you’ve got control of the change, you’re much more comfortable with it than if someone else is controlling it and you have little or no influence.”

Where change fails, Boustead says it's usually due to leadership inconsistency or a change of tack.

He adds: “You need an extremely clear mandate and a really good conversation with the most senior people in the organisation about what success looks like. Setting out that initial case for change, what risk tolerance there is around that with the senior team, and what resources you need to be able to deliver the change.”


Come back tomorrow for part two. 

The full feature above first appeared in the January/February 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.