After Victoria’s change of government on 29 November, significant changes have been announced to the structure of government departments. The changes will see a reduction in the number of government departments (from nine down to seven) and major structural changes to portfolios.
In keeping with the long traditions of the public service, professional public servants will be working hard to serve the new government and implement its changes to the structure of the public service.
The Westminster tradition of independently serving the government of the day is so strong, that the personal impact on public servants of a change of government is often overlooked or not discussed.
It will be important for managers and individuals in the public sector to attend to these personal impacts.
With this in mind we thought it would be timely to share some key strategies organisations can utilise to assist employees in managing some of the emotions that come with major organisational restructures or machinery of government changes.
In this blog we will refer to Bridges’ Three Stages of Transition (2009). These phases are based on the analogy of a trapeze – flying through the air on a swing, letting go, and grabbing on to another swing.
- The Endings Phase is about disengaging from the old approaches, structures, relationships, roles and moving on.
- The Neutral Zone is a period of uncertainty and possible fear about what the future holds.
- The New Beginning is where people feel clear about the new future and what it holds. They feel renewed, a sense of purpose and re-energised.
So, how can we successfully guide our employees through these phases?
The Endings Phase
In The Endings Phase, employees may find themselves wanting to deny the existence of the initiative and other related change events. This denial can cause them to feel fearful and uncertain about the future. This can diminish productivity and readiness to deal with the change as the process starts to impact on the way “things have always been done”.
It is important to understand how the change is making them feel, how this may make them feel hesitant to change, and what support they might need from management and their colleagues.
Tips for how to move through endings productively include:
- Respond to employee concerns with empathy and understanding (but do not excuse or encourage inappropriate behaviour)
- Mark the ending of the old state so that the new journey can commence e.g. events that acknowledge and appreciate the past
- Keep mementos to remember the old if possible
- Acknowledge the feelings of loss amongst employees e.g. networks and relationships
- Focus on communication and discuss with your employees the need for change and the opportunity it presents
- Share information openly and honestly
- Celebrate successes as they occur
- Focus on short term achievable business and team/personal objectives
The Neutral Zone
The Neutral Zone is the time between the past and the desired future state. People will be attempting to orient themselves to the new requirements and behaviours of the new situation. During this time, employees will often feel confused about the future and may feel overloaded with competing demands. Because things can be chaotic at this stage, employees may question the status quo or the accepted way of doing things. It is important to note that the exploration stage is also a time that is ripe with creative opportunity.
Some tips for managing emotions during this stage:
- Be patient while respectfully challenging negative statements
- Take reasonable risks in order to create new solutions
- Define confusion as normal and talk about it as a stage with your team
- Create new communication channels where appropriate
- Be proactive about networking and the building of new relationships
- Review your team priorities and objectives
- Celebrate successes along the way
- Connect to the future vision and be committed to organisational values
- Set short term achievable business/team objectives
The Beginnings Stage
The beginnings stage is that time when people are ready to commit to the new direction. They feel secure with the new system and are ready to function as a significant contributor. This typically occurs as the initiative starts to achieve some of its desired goals. As with the first two stages, there are some things you may see or experience that will let you know that employees are moving on and have adopted the change. This will look and feel a lot different to the first two stages, with more energy and enthusiasm. Creativity is generally higher and you should quickly see opportunities for growth and excitement.
Some practical strategies during this stage include:
- Convert remaining complaints to action items and look for solutions
- Celebrate successes that acknowledge the growth and the change
- Focus on your team’s personal responsibility and accountability
- Encourage staff to lead or take on different or new work or processes
- Encourage staff to embed the new ways of working
- Think and seek out innovation
- Encourage staff use initiative
- Challenge your team to determine the solution if an issue is raised
Ultimately, machinery of government changes can be a disruptive and uncertain time for public servants and this naturally drives some negative emotion. During this time it is important that managers and other leaders help their workforce see the changes as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. Acknowledge the pressures, leverage the opportunities, and view the process as a time for renewal and improvement.