Leaders must move quickly to build momentum for change

10% of the workforce will be saboteurs, management must act fast to minimize their impact

The conventional wisdom is that people resist change. We fundamentally disagree,” says Elspeth Murray, who co-authored Fast Forward: Organizational Change in 100 Days with Peter Richardson.

Invariably in any organization undergoing major change, some people will hate anything and everything about the proposed plan. But they are usually only about 10 per cent of the workforce. It’s up to the organization’s leaders to move quickly to ensure that the rest of the workforce — the other 90 per cent — get on board early, and that the change effort moves with enough speed that they can’t get off again, says Murray, a business professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

For change to succeed, the leaders of an organization must build up unstoppable momentum, she says. And momentum is attained with speed and critical mass. Leaders have a small window at the start of a change initiative to build momentum by moving quickly and getting enough people committed to the cause so that the change continues forward even when problems arise, she says.

In most instances, there are some employees who can’t wait to get started with a new plan or strategy. “You will always find a good core group of people who will be with you 100 per cent; you don’t need data or rah-rah talks. You just say, ‘We are going to do something different,’ and they want to know what they can do to help.”

But the vast majority of employees, usually about 70 per cent of the organization, are “fence-sitters.”

These are the skeptics and other people who aren’t necessarily resisting, but who are slow to buy in for any number of reasons. Some will need to know what is in it for them; others may have been through a number of painful change initiatives in the past and are doubtful another one is needed or that it will be any more effective. Whatever the reason for the skepticism, this is the group that is critical to the success of any change effort. Handling this group is the most important task for leaders in the early days of change.

“From a leadership perspective, you have to take the 20 per cent who are on board and with their assistance, systematically address the 70 per cent on the fence,” she says.

Employees can’t be treated as a homogenous group. For some, a stirring talk from the CEO to the entire organization will be enough to convince them of the need to get involved. For others, it’s going to take a more personal touch with managers and leaders meeting one on one with employees to explain what is in it for them.

Each tactic should bring a few more people off the fence, and it will take many different efforts to convert them. But converting them is a must, else they “go over to the dark side.” They will join the 10 per cent of employees who are “arsonists and saboteurs,” she says.

“There is a tendency to try to convince that 10 per cent, when in reality they will never change.” The best plan is to remove them from the organization if possible, but it isn’t always easy to identify them, she says. They are often passive-aggressive types who seem committed in meetings, but sing a very different tune with colleagues and co-workers afterwards.

On the other hand, “people sometimes get tagged as arsonists or saboteurs because they are asking tough questions when in fact they’re just fence-sitters with good questions that need to be answered to get them off the fence.”

Once the organization has enough people committed and buying into the change initiative, the focus for leaders then shifts to ensuring momentum is kept up.

“There are all kinds of examples where change gets bogged down and loses momentum.” It’s up to the senior team to clearly communicate, and where necessary demonstrate, that the initiative is not going to fizzle out and fade away.

That often arises from a lack of determination and commitment. The senior leaders have to be absolutely relentless, says Murray. She recalls one CEO explaining how he approached change. “Every time he talked about the change, he reminded everyone that he was relentless, telling them, ‘If you don’t like this, I have no problem and I wish you all the best. But if you think this is going away, think again.’”

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