How to lead when change is imposed from above

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What can staff do when a change is imposed on them? The CIPD’s people & transformation director Amanda Arrowsmith unpacks how successful (or not) edicts can be.

Change is an inevitable part of the working world. As businesses evolve and adapt to the shifting landscape, employees often find themselves at the receiving end of mandates from their superiors. When such changes are imposed, reactions may range from confusion to frustration. But how should employees respond, and why do some changes succeed while others fail? 

Firstly, when an edict is issued, it’s crucial to understand the rationale behind it. Uninformed resistance can be counterproductive. If the reasoning is not immediately clear, seek clarification. A conversation with your manager or HR can illuminate the purpose behind the change. For instance, an organisation’s decision to remove social media apps might stem from concerns about data security, productivity or professional image.  

Guiding your teams and colleagues through these imposing waves of change can feel akin to captaining a ship in stormy waters. But, with insights gleaned from recent studies, you’re in a strong position to navigate this challenging course.  

Understand why 

Understanding is the bedrock of managing change. A study by Willis Towers Watson found that merely half (53%) of organisations reported that their employees grasped the rationale behind significant organisational changes. You, as a leader, must comprehend the ‘why’ behind the change. 

This understanding will prepare you for resistance or questions from your team and equip you to explain the rationale behind the change effectively. 

Once you understand the ‘why,’ you can assess the implications for your work. Will it make certain tasks more difficult? Will it require new skills or adaptations? If the change poses significant challenges, it’s essential to communicate these. Constructive feedback can lead to additional support or consideration of adaptations to plans. 

It’s equally important to approach change with an open mind. Knee-jerk reactions can blind us to potential benefits. A seemingly disruptive policy may lead to better work-life balance, improved productivity or safer data practices.  

On your journey through change, adopt a systematic, yet adaptable approach. Research by Harvard Business Review indicated that successful organisations treated imposed changes as a dynamic, ongoing journey rather than a stringent plan to adhere to. So, while you should prepare a roadmap for this change’s impact on your department, remember to allow space for adjustments. 

Success and failure 

It is essential to embrace the human side of change. Research from the CIPD shows that the success or failure of policy change is often dependent on the process of implementation rather than the policy itself.  

Successful policy changes are usually marked by clear communication, empathetic leadership, and appropriate training that can reduce anxiety and resistance among employees during periods of change. Therefore, your role expands beyond finance to include boosting morale, offering support and serving as a mediator. 

Once you understand the ‘why’ you can assess the implications for your work. Will it make certain tasks more difficult? Will it require new skills or adaptations?

So, why do some policy changes succeed while others fail? Success typically hinges on communication, understanding and support.  

Change can be unsettling, so clear, consistent communication from leadership is key. Colleagues need to understand the reasons for the change and the benefits it could bring.  

Communication is paramount. The Willis Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Study reported that organisations with effective communication are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers.  

The CIPD also reinforces the importance of communication during change management, advocating for two-way dialogue to encourage engagement and feedback. 

Support package 

Understanding on its own isn’t enough. Support in terms of training, resources and patience can ease the transition. If colleagues are expected to adapt without adequate support, resistance and resentment may follow. Conversely, when leadership demonstrates commitment to supporting their team through change, colleagues are more likely to embrace the new policy. 

When change goes wrong or fails it can often stem from a lack of these elements. If changes are imposed without clear communication, without reasoning or without support, colleagues can feel disrespected and overlooked.  

Moreover, if changes are perceived as arbitrary or unnecessary, they are likely to be met with resistance.  

Change can be unsettling, so clear, consistent communication from leadership is key. Colleagues need to understand the reasons for the change and the benefits it could bring.

The lessons we can learn are clear. Whether you’re an employee facing a new edict or a manager planning a policy change, open dialogue, understanding, and support are crucial.  

For employees, understanding the reason behind the change, communicating concerns, and remaining open to potential benefits can help navigate the transition.  

For employers, explaining the rationale for changes, providing necessary support, and being receptive to feedback can foster acceptance and cooperation. 

The imposition of a new policy or an edict need not be a cause for anxiety or resistance. It can be an opportunity for growth, improvement and increased efficiency. The key lies in understanding, communication and support. Remember, change is not the enemy, but an opportunity for evolution and progress. 

So, when the next edict lands in your inbox, view it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle – a chance to grow, learn, and exhibit your resilience and adaptability. It’s not the change that defines us but how we react to it. 

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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