Do you know how to manage your employees through changes?

While it may seem obvious that change is difficult and can cause resistance, most managers tend to underestimate how hard it is for employees to make even small changes to work habits.

Organisations go through more changes more rapidly today than they did 20 years ago. Competition in global markets means that the life expectancy for strategies, new products, processes and organisational structures gets shorter and shorter. The demand for organisations to change is therefore ever increasing.

For some, changing the way we do things comes naturally, and is even welcome. For others, it represents something very difficult, which frightens and is therefore resisted.

The Lewin Change Model

Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, founded the change management discipline in the 1940s out of an interest in how individuals change. He was one of the first to show that intention and motivation is not enough to produce lasting change.

Through a range of experiments he showed that although many are motivated to change most are unable to make the new behaviour permanent. He also showed how powerful forces are working against change and that one of the most important ones is the power of habits. To change the habit, Lewin suggested that individuals must follow a three-stage process.

The three stages are as follows:


  • Unfreeze existing habits or mental structures (ideas, views, beliefs) to be ready to change. Understand why it is important to change and why the habit is no longer working.
  • Change the habit. The person must try the new behavior, evaluate what works and what doesn’t and adjust his or her actions accordingly. The motivation must constantly be renewed, for example through personal rewards when the behaviour is performed well.
  • Refreeze the new habit. The new behaviour must become a lasting habit. This involves performing the new behaviour many times, constantly evaluating progress and receiving external feedback on performance.

Best practice steps in effective change management

Like always - there is no universal template for a change management programme. Each programme must be developed to fit the unique context of the company.

For guidance and inspiration, John Kotter (1997) has formulated a generic process model with a number of best practice tips, which any change management process should follow. His 8-step model includes all major process-elements of the people side of change. If Lewin’s model is about individual change then Kotter’s model is about organisational change.

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency

People and organisations will not change unless it is absolutely necessary. It is simply  human nature to preserve the status quo. However, by creating a sense of urgency, the very top management communicates that the status quo is no longer an option and that the changes it brings are necessary.

Step 2: Form a powerful change management team

A powerful team should be put together to help steer this change safely through. The team needs to include people who have enough formal power to make the project difficult to block, possess strong leadership skills, are great communicators and project managers.

Step 3: Create a vision for the change

People must want to change and this inner motivation can come from following a leader and his or her vision. As much as a great vision can inspire and motivate, a poor vision is likely to de-motivate and create cynicism in the organisation. If cost saving are the main focus, top management must instead find a better vision for the project. What will the cost savings do? What does it mean for the organisation, that it now can focus on the things that really makes a difference for the core business?

Step 4: Communicate the change

Communication needs to be; honest, plentiful and meaningful. Honest communication about the process and the likely implications such as changes in job content, alterations in pay or headcount reductions are essential. If the communication from the management team is not plentiful, then it will be filled with rumours, gossip and speculation. Finally, the communication must be meaningful and situation-relevant. Whenever the management communicates something, it should be followed up with a and here’s what we’re going to do about it.

Step 5: Empowering employees

Employees can be empowered by getting rid of obstacles, recognising and rewarding them for making it happen, changing structures and process so they are aligned with the new vision and supporting employees as much as possible. One of the most effective ways of empowering people in general is to involve them in the transition.

Step 6: Generate short-term wins and celebrate them

The change management’s project team should identify upfront an overall goal for the project as well as several short-term wins, the bulk of which should be achieved early on. This could be: pre- and post-user satisfaction surveys or no resignation during transition.

The celebrations do not need to be big or expensive. Rather effective small-group celebrations where the team can bond.

Step 7: Consolidating gains and producing more change

It requires a special effort to make new behaviour permanent. In practice this means that organisations should try to reinforce the right behaviour. Reinforcements can come in many forms. One way is to use early success as an enabler of future success. It does not matter how large or small the accomplishment is - it should be made public for the whole organisation. A ceremony after the change has been implemented can be held to acknowledge that the change has been difficult (if it has) and openly acknowledge the improvements the change has created.

Step 8: Anchor the change in the corporate culture

There is a saying that if culture and strategy clash - culture always wins. A new behaviour is most effectively anchored if it is congruent with the culture of the company. Therefore, it is recommended that the new behaviour is framed and introduced as being part of the culture.

This blog post is based on the white paper: Working with Change Management in Service Outsourcing.

What do you think is most important when managing employees through changes? Share your thoughts in the comment field below.

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