From the C-Suite: Agents of Change
If you’re an executive who has worked for a company that’s been around for a long time, congrats. The fact that your employer survived the tumultuous retail climate of 2008 and the digital disruption that has occurred since is to be applauded. Often in these organizations, we find team members who have proudly logged 20-plus years of service and boast a hire date long before e-commerce was common.
While their experience and historical knowledge can be invaluable, if you lead large teams you’ll also invariably run across some associates who are openly, or maybe not so visibly, resistant to change. As unproductive as it can be, you may have even encountered those who work tirelessly to preserve “how we’ve always done it.”
However, in the undeniable age of digital disruption, change is inevitable. In fact, the word “change” is part of the very definition of disruption, and often we see it partnered with the word radical. Companies and their employees which do not embrace the changes caused by their digitally enabled customers as well as new technologies to support them will be on a steady path to extinction.
One of my favorite quotes that’s most often credited to Darwin is the following: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It’s the one that’s most adaptable to change.”
To be an effective digital change agent requires a lot of people skills. The first is to recognize and acknowledge that resistance may exist in the ranks. In fact, it may quietly exist within some of your leadership. How do you as the leader, and often the one assigned to be the agent of change, manage and evolve the resistors for their own well-being?
Understanding why some associates may resist change brought on by the new digital business paradigm can be useful in leading and succeeding. Acknowledging to you, other company leaders and frontline staff that some resistance to change is normal will transparently put the subject out on the table. Furthermore, having awareness that associates may be motivated by several different factors can add perspective on how to help evolve them.
Here are five natural reactions to change and disruption, as well as some tips on how you might address them.
Fear of Incompetency
Particularly in areas of your organization being impacted by digital, long-tenured associates may have developed and been in charge of many processes and responsibilities where they possess bodies of finely honed expertise. While the reality is likely that these processes are quickly becoming irrelevant or are barely required for the future, the associate’s sense of purpose and authority is likely tightly bound to this domain expertise. Possibly they’ve garnered respect or have even been rewarded in the past for being the gatekeepers of a particular base of company knowledge.
Digital is new territory for everyone, and they might feel they’ll be “discovered” for not being up-to-date on the latest techniques or best practice information. The good news is the internet is a powerful library for them to search, learn and quickly get current on the new digital dialog and best practices. Methods such as circulating links to relevant articles, holding regular lunch-and-learn sessions, and discussing competitor approaches during meetings are all nonthreatening techniques that will contribute to raising the knowledge base.
Don’t Rock My Boat
Upsetting the long-standing order of things, which can be perceived by many as only increasing workloads and stress or inviting unwanted risk, can be a resistance driver for many. These associates may be marking time toward their retirement date. They often have their work and personal lives neatly compartmentalized with a great sense of control regarding what they perceive to be the requirements to remain employed. They may have long ago abandoned any ambition to learn new or even easier methods. They feel that they have a specific, well-defined function and position within the organization, and while they don’t have great job satisfaction, it “pays the bills.”
What they likely don’t acknowledge is that the role or functions they presently perform may have been impacted by new technical efficiencies or platforms, and the old functions may naturally become obsolete. These associates need to become re-energized to embrace and learn new, possibly easier methods, even if their remaining tenure is short. They need to see that the benefits of their efforts will truly give them job security while keeping the company profitable — and their retirement benefits assured.
I’m Going to Be Replaced by a Machine
Having led and managed digital teams within retail organizations for more than 15 years, I can’t say I recall ever having to let someone go because a machine or technology made their job obsolete. Good digital employees are hard to find and the hiring process takes a lot of time. No growing company wants to intentionally rid itself of these valuable associates.
Armed with the knowledge that digital change is a necessity for organizations, employees whom you help enlighten can eliminate this fear and increase their job security. More typical is the scenario where an associate refuses to keep himself or herself current, learn new technologies, or isn’t open to change or adapting to the direction the company is forced to move in for survival. It’s possible the associate truly is no longer a fit with the company and the old job is eliminated or, as is more common, attrition is allowed and the position isn’t refilled when someone departs.
Because I Can
Sometimes people resist change because they can, just to try to make a counterpoint to what’s being asked of them. They simply don’t want to be told what to do, and there’s a commitment on the part of this employee or group to see the change efforts fail. I’ve heard examples of companies which put digital change agents in place to try to turn around rapidly declining businesses. Resistors within the company contributed money to a pool, betting on how soon those members could successfully force the executive to depart out of frustration.
While this may seem counterintuitive to job preservation, it demonstrates how powerful this particular human behavior can be. Long-standing associates who have seen survival of the company for 20-plus years may not have the information on how fast digital has changed the business landscape and that there truly are real competitive threats in the new business world order. Providing this group real-world examples of competitors that have disappeared from the landscape may be a helpful tactic.
The Leader May Be a Laggard
A digital executive or senior leader can’t possibly be involved in all situations or dialogs. They must have confidence that their team leaders are on board with the direction and change processes needed to keep the company around. Unfortunately, the larger your teams, the higher the likelihood that at least one of your captains is secretly not rowing in your boat. He may even put on a good company face in your presence and say all the right things, but there may be implied or actual actions that send counteractive messages to part of the team, which undermines the change efforts. In this situation, it’s imperative that leaders pay attention to all verbal and nonverbal cues, immediately and directly addressing in private.
We hope that all associates and leaders embrace change. It’s often those who have well-developed self-confidence and higher self-esteem that deal well with the inevitable digital disruption. Seeking out those you notice are handling change well and rewarding them publicly is wise. You can also enlist them to be your eyes and ears, enabling you to anticipate pockets where change isn’t progressing. These valuable allies can help move slower resistors along.
Linda Mihalick is the senior director of the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.