Leading the “People Side” of Change

By Jean Marie Johnson

Some years ago, I was involved with an organization that had just acquired a high-tech call reporting system. The new system spewed data like lava from a volcano. The IT folks loved it, while the managers scratched their heads trying to make sense of all of the numbers, trends, and forecasts. All of this data was supposed to help make everyone perform better; it was just a matter of figuring out how to make best use of it.

One manager came up with the “ah-ha” idea that if they posted all of this data, the agents would get the big picture and better yet, they’d get to see how they were doing in comparison with everyone else. What a motivational tool!  Brilliant!  Well, hardly.

As an astute contact center professional, you can imagine the mayhem that ensued. A team of agents with a solid record of accomplishment launched a contact center version of mutiny on the bounty. In time, the agents and managers recovered from this leadership faux pas, but not without learning some key lessons along the way.

Communicate the “what,” the “why,” and the “how does it effect me?” As a manager leading change of any kind, “due diligence” means that you personally understand and can communicate the answers to the what, why, and how questions.

Let’s say the person you report to suddenly announces that, henceforth, you will be evaluated under a different performance management process. You would immediately want to know what the new process is, where it comes from, and how it works. You’d also want to know why – why this, why now, why are we not doing what we’ve always done in the past, and so forth. In addition to all of these questions, there are personal questions. You might wonder about how much training you’ll get on the new process, if it will be harder to administer and document, and whether it will make your life at work harder or easier.

The agents in the opening example did not know what the data meant, why it was being posted, and what implications it had for them. This all leads to the next lesson.

Engage, from the beginning, everyone who will be affected by the change: The two core principles of respect and accountability speak well to this lesson. Many managers feel comfortable with the task side of change; the doing and implementation. The other side, often referred to as “the messy part,” is respecting the people implications of change.

We all know what it feels like to spend restless nights tossing and turning, imagining the worst scenarios in the absence of information. Let people know what is happening from the beginning. Invite their thoughts, ideas, concerns, and questions. The more involved they are, the less resistance they will feel, and the more likely they will be to adapt to the changes. One benefit of engaging the people impacted by a change is that a better plan often emerges from including different perspectives. A second benefit is that being asked and listened to is a powerful demonstration of respect, and that is what pays dividends.

Had the managers talked with the agents about their plans to post the data from the get-go, they may have never posted it. With the agents input, they could have identified a process that the agents not only accepted, but supported.

Emphasize what will remain the same: It’s amazing how often we focus exclusively on what will be new or different, forgetting to address what will be the same. Few changes are so sweeping that nothing remains the same. People derive comfort and a sense of stability from what is familiar.

In our ill-fated example, specific measures such as targets for average talk time and number of calls handled remained the same. The only real change was the manner in which the measures were reported. Imagine how different the response could have been if the agents knew this before the data were posted. They may still have resisted the posting, but they would have understood that the substance of the information remained the same. Remember to balance the message of change with a message of stability. It is more accurate and it alleviates so much unnecessary and unproductive stress.

Keep your finger on the pulse and course-correct: We lead change by staying close to it. The old adage about “managing by walking around” applies. It is not enough to communicate, engage, listen, and act. You need to observe the impact of the changes you implement and be ready to adjust, refine, or retract. You also need to be able to say, “I made a mistake,” and mean it.

When the managers who posted the ill-received data realized the impact of their actions, they acted with courage and integrity. In the words and actions that followed, they modeled both respect for their agents and personal accountability for their actions. They sought to understand the resistance and learn from it.

The outcome was that the computer printouts came down and were replaced by team and one-on-one conversations with agents to review both organizational and individual results. They thanked the agents for responding honestly and shared their willingness to learn from the situation. The data was still there and over time, the agents themselves began to lead team discussions about targets and measures – the dreaded data became the desired data.

Look at the process you undertook to implement a recent change in your organization. Ask yourself which of these four lessons you already practice, and which you should adopt the next time you are about to invoke a change. Learning from these lessons will aid in the transition and help prevent mutiny.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Vice President at Communico Ltd., a customer service training and consulting company that delivers measurable results for customer service organizations and call centers. To learn more about creating a service culture, read Communico’s new book, How to Talk to Customers.

[From the June/July 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]