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

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

Catch up on part one of this cover story here before reading the below.


What could go wrong?

Employee resistance is the thorn in the side of employee engagement, and it becomes much more challenging when change is perceived negatively. Empathy, again, is key.

Elizabeth Moran, a self-confessed ‘change nerd’ and author of Forward: Leading Your Team Through Change, recognises it’s often the hardest thing to do.

Moran’s framework for change has three parts to it. The first of these, compassion, is how she recommends HR overcome resistance. “Compassion is the idea that emotions and negative reactions like resistance are completely normal,” she says. “It’s not a problem, so stop looking at it as a problem or as a barometer of how good you are as a change leader or a change supporter.

“Once you don’t look at it as a problem you don’t have to do battle with it, you can just become curious,” she adds. “What I like to say is resistance is concerns that haven’t been addressed yet, so use it as wisdom.”

Getting employees out of the resistance stage and into a place where they are considering and even accepting change can come down to pessimism versus optimism.

“What we know is the human brain hates uncertainty more than anything else,” Moran says. “What studies have shown is that 75% of the time, people view the unknown not as just neutral, they view the next thing that’s coming as ‘it’s going to be bad’.”

Naturally HR can’t expect to switch mindsets overnight, especially in ever-cynical Brits. But seeking alternatives, Moran says, is helpful.

She says: “So how do I shift my perspective and be able to say, what is something that feels authentic but more hopeful?

"For instance, 'I may not have all the answers now. But you know what, I and people around me have done a pretty good job of coming together and supporting each other.'

“It’s not that things won’t be difficult, but it’s starting with your perspective and reframing it: what could go right?”


What’s missing?

The personal and emotional toll of change is often under-appreciated, both in the staff involved (directly and indirectly) and HR practitioners themselves.

“I can think of lots of examples where people haven’t been made redundant, but they have felt bruised and demoralised after the process,” says Boustead, calling for consideration of mental health support as part of change. Within the people profession, it is something the CIPD became acutely aware of during the pandemic.

D’Souza says: “The thing that probably most of the profession has recognised in the last couple of years is how much of a personal and emotional toll working on complex change can have, how demanding it is, and how important it is to have a supportive community and an understanding of your own personal capacity and limitations.”

To help burnt-out HR professionals, at the start of Covid the organisation introduced a counselling hotline for members. “It’s been more heavily used than I would have liked it to have been,” D’Souza admits, “[But] I’m glad it’s been of value.

“Organisations are going through change but so are the individual practitioners.” Moran similarly has met many HR leaders that have felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of them.

“What I found is ultimately, both HR partners and people leaders, when you mentioned change management, they became overwhelmed,” she says.


"The personal and emotional toll of change is often under-appreciated"


“It just seemed like this very amorphous thing, and it just wasn’t helpful for anybody.” Moran’s reminder is to keep it simple, consistent, and avoid attempting to do the impossible.

She adds: “My approach has always been, let’s not boil the ocean. Let’s have a ‘good enough’ change leadership, and that usually is a couple of actions done in a particular order, over and over again.”

When multiple change projects happen simultaneously or in quick succession, as has happened post-pandemic, it can also have a hidden compounding effect. Whittle calls this the ‘add-up’ of change.

At YBS, she asks: “If we’ve got this add-up of change, can we add up that story for the impacted person? Can we tell them, in a year’s time: ‘This is what’s going to be different’ and join training together or engagement opportunities to help?”

She adds: “There’s all sorts of knock-on effects [where] HR needs to step back and look at the add-up of change, what it means for roles and therefore what HR need to do differently to get the role ready for change.”

As with other areas in HR, like diversity and inclusion and organisational development, there is a growing case for dedicated change specialists.

At the OU, for example, Boustead is setting up a change team separate to HR.

“It’s deliberately set up so they don’t get embroiled in some of the day-to-day, and they can can execute the change,” he explains. “Some of it is about bringing fresh thinking outside of the organisation outside the sector as well.”

However, as HR is carving out its vital role on the business agenda the value change management done well can bring to the profession as generalists is clear.

Polycrisis or not, D’Souza says: “You can’t be an excellent people professional and not understand the emotions that people go through with change.”


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.