A few months ago, we received a call from a pharmaceutical company that was in the midst of a reorganization program. The people at the grass roots were highly resistant to the project and the people at the top wanted to get to the heart of the reasons for this resistance. They were particularly concerned by this reaction because they had pulled out all the stops to outline the stakes of the transformation to their staff, making it clear that it was a vital change for everyone in the company.
A number of theories were put forward by members of the management team on the reason for this blockage. Natural “resistance to change” for some, “period of mourning” prior to acceptance for others. A third hypothesis was that the employees found that they had “nothing to gain” from the change.
We decided to go out into the field, to meet these people at the grass roots. What did we find out? In fact, the employees had perfectly grasped the stakes of the change project. They didn’t appear to be afraid of it and they knew that they would gain from the change. Quite simply, they did not have confidence in their leaders’ ability to successfully complete the transformation. Why was this? Because of a very pronounced feeling that the people at the top were out of touch with what really went on in the front line. One anecdote, related by a lab assistant, gave a perfect illustration of this. Nine months previously, during a renovation of the building, the paper towel dispenser adjacent to her work surface had been moved a few centimetres too close to the sink. As a result the first sheet pulled from the dispenser was systematically moistened with a few drops of water, making it unusable owing to the hygiene and quality standards that had to be complied with. Her managers were aware of this situation but did not really feel that it warranted much attention. It was just a few drops of water after all; it was not a priority for them.
After nine months, the issue had still not been resolved – leaving the lab assistant with serious doubts about the chances of success of a change project, vital for the future of each and every person, but led by people “who don’t have the faintest idea about how we work” (sic).
This particular case is symptomatic of what we see on a regular basis. In order to successfully complete a difficult change process, it is essential for the leaders to have won the confidence of the people out in the field. In order to so, they have to show that they are aware of and understand the day-to-day constraints that the people at the grass roots have to deal with.
So, what course of action did the company decide to take? The leaders launched a new work process aimed at getting a clearer awareness of the realities of life out in the field in order to gain their employees’ confidence. Implementing simpler, shorter information exchange circuits, rigorously following up how local issues are dealt with and organizing management field trips. Last but not least, experimenting with an innovative new exchange process: at each meeting of the executive committee, a team of representatives from the field were invited to present the details of a problem that they were facing, and to share their solution proposals with their leaders. Yet another example of the multi-faceted nature of change management.