Life After the Change

by Krishna on February 14, 2007

Change management is difficult. But it doesn’t end after you make the change. After that, comes the often-overlooked and complicated challenge of communicating to stakeholders about the change and what it means for them. Convincing them is yet another uphill battle.

Usually, an organization initiates a change process with the purpose of bringing benefits to various people affected by its activities. For example, a quality process is launched so that the company can deliver products that perform better with lower rate of defects. Let us say that that quality process was successful and the company achieved its goals.

The problem is that most of the customers who buy the products generally have no idea about the new initiative or the fact that the quality of the product has improved. Matters are worse when there is already another company that leads the market with respect to the product attribute that has been improved. Take the case of the automobile industry or online search engines, where Japanese cars and Google respectively dominate the discussion on quality while others fail to impress despite their constant efforts to improve.

But even in the absence of a competitor, once a company or organization has acquired a negative reputation, it takes a lot of effort to dispel those impressions. A scandal, a product-related injury or even a prominent news review can set a company back years in the eyes of customers.

This is also true for individuals in a society. When an individual has committed errors in the past from simple bad behavior to serious crimes, society tends to view that individual through the same lens even as the person is trying to change their character. The lack of support makes the transition even more difficult. People are quick to condemn — it is easy and takes less effort than trying to know a person and help them change.

A particular case in business is the problem of a manager or employee who has not performed well in the past. The manager may have mismanaged projects and alienated his subordinates through indecision, anger or incompetence. The employee may not have delivered what she promised which may have caused heartburn for other employees.

Now the person realizes this and decides to improve themselves through self-learning or by attending a study program. Through various means, the individual becomes better at managing his or her work. But the deep-rooted mistrust of fellow workers is tough to overcome. There is an initial disbelief that the person has indeed changed, followed by questions about his or her motivations.

When co-workers think that the changed behavior is due to some mercenary intention on the part of the reformed employee, any support that they may offer that person is grudgingly given. This makes co-operation and team work very difficult.

If you were in the place of the newly changed manager or employee, what would you do? One step is to swallow one’s pride and acknowledge the truth, which is that mistakes (gross and egregious) were made in the past. Also instead of providing excuses for such errors, point to the root cause inside you: character flaws, lack of empathy, etc. Also explain to people about how you are trying to change yourself and what steps you are taking. The more humility and sincerity you can display, the better support you can get.

This is sometimes easier said than done. If you have hurt or treated a person very badly in the past, sometimes no amount of apologies may change that person’s feelings toward you. Life is like that: Even when you repent, you will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of your past. The best thing one can do for people in that case is to remove oneself from that environment so that one will no longer be an irritant. Make a fresh start and try to make good use of a second chance.

To summarize: Bad impressions formed over a long period of a person, department or company can be very difficult to change. When the cause is bad behavior itself, changing actions or becoming better is not enough to dispel such feelings. The person has to do a lot of convincing and demonstrate good behavior consistently for a long time before people start forgetting and forgiving the past.

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