Coping with Change

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How to cope with changes in the workplace.

Introducing people or an organization to new technology is often difficult and disruptive. Many firms have found to their surprise that despite the power, excellence and even elegance of the new system, people resist it, complain about it, and seem to take forever to learn how to use it efficiently. This really shouldn’t be surprising, nor should it be allowed to occur. But, unfortunately, both are all too common. What goes wrong and why?

The basic problem arises because the demands of technology have been allowed to take precedence over the needs of people. While we certainly must adopt new systems, software and processes, we should never lose sight of the fact that people, not machines, are and always will be the backbone of any organization. Regardless of the technological advantages of any firm, 90% of its assets are people and they must be treated differently from machines. Why then are they ignored? What happens as a result?

Part of the reason for ignoring them derives from the tendency of technically minded managers to be more oriented to things than to people. Since the managers understand and are comfortable with the new technology, they fail to recognize that others don’t share these feelings. Even when they discover that their people need some help, they seriously underestimate the kind and amount of assistance required. All too often they think that because they understand the new technology, you probably do, too. And if you don’t understand it, for some inexplicable reason, they believe they can easily help you by explaining it. Naturally, they’ll be using the technical terminology because everyone knows what “interface,” “motherboards,” and “UNIX” mean. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth and the more detailed the explanation, the greater the confusion.

Another factor technical people don’t understand is that unlike “techies,” who eagerly await new advances, most people are somewhat resistant to change and find it stressful. This is especially true when those introducing the change fail to explain its benefits to the individuals who will use it, or when they don’t involve them in the introduction process right from the start. Everybody who has to use the technology wants to know “What’s in it for me?” any manager who doesn’t fully answer this question is begging for trouble.

The second major reason for difficulties is that those who must adapt to the new system are pressured to learn it far too quickly. Sometimes, they are even told that their jobs will depend on it. Talk about stress! These poor souls don’t know what the technology is, what it’s for, or how to use it. But they do know that if they don’t catch on to it fast, they’ll be fired. Nothing could be more detrimental to the learning process and worse for morale.

The third fault stems from not providing the right kind of training, in the right place, at the right time. No matter how good the technology, it isn’t worth the powder to blow it up if the operators aren’t taught how to use it. Unfortunately, this essential step is usually left in the hands of whoever sold the equipment or process. Now these people may be experts in their field, but they are worse than rank amateurs when it comes to teaching and training people. They simply don’t know how to put together a training package and present it in a way that will guarantee its success.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I had occasion to rent a car from an internationally known rental firm. The women behind the counter were flustered, extremely anxious, and grossly inefficient. Their customers were impatient, angry, and resentful. The reason for all this trouble was that the company had just introduced a computerized reservation system that day.

Oh, sure, everyone had been trained, but the “training” had consisted of one four-hour session given at the convenience of the trainers! One of the attendants, who had received her training at the end of a 10-hour shift, was warned that if she wasn’t proficient within four days, she would be fired. When she was unable to print out my contract, I asked whether she had a hot line to get help. “Yes,” she replied, “but they get mad if you use it.” This stupid, unthinking approach generated tears, anger, and frustration, leading to more and more mistakes and many angry customers.

When you train people, you must pick the most appropriate time, do it slowly in stages, allow mistakes to be made, and provide sympathetic, patient help when people forget the obvious. People need support and a certain amount of handholding. Everyone learns at a different rate and in different ways. Some grasp the concepts quickly, while others are paralyzed for fear of making a mistake that will destroy the entire computer system, lose every order, bankrupt the firm, cause their immediate electrocution, or all of the above. Techies have to understand that this is normal, even if it is beyond their comprehension and their ability to cope with it.

Most machines operate smoothly and efficiently; otherwise we wouldn’t be using them. It’s the people who use them that we have to worry about. Preparing and planning properly for the introduction of new technology is essential for success. Learn what people need, what they fear, how to help them, and how to teach them most effectively. If you don’t know how to do this, find someone who can and ask him or her to assist you. Introducing new technology is easy if you do it right. Anything less than perfection in your approach will cause more trouble than you want to know about.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.