How to react to—and manage—change

How to react to—and manage—change

Debbie Schachter

In previous columns, I have written about many important and practical management skills, from project management to performance planning. One important underlying skill for the successful management of all such activities is the ability to manage change in your library. Change is inevitable in the workplace today; but effective change management is not universally understood or applied as a management function in libraries.

It is important to understand how you as an individual react to change–be it change that you implement or change that is imposed upon you. By developing an awareness of how you react to change, you will become more effective in helping your staff deal with change in your library environment. By better understanding how you and others generally respond to change, you will become more skilled at avoiding the pitfalls of implementing change and the damaging negative reactions to change.

At the broadest level, change can be understood simply as the movement from one state to another, or, as social psychologist Kurt Lewin describes it, unfreezing from the current situation, experiencing a movement phase, then refreezing in the new state (Robbins, p. 634). The difficulty in implementing change lies in the effort involved in moving yourself and your staff from the status quo to a new situation. Every new initiative that affects how library staff members do their work, what work they do, or with whom they work will follow this path. Your task as manager is to ensure that the change goal is achieved and to manage the change as it unfolds.

When change is imposed upon your library by an external agent, are you aware of how you react? Do you exhibit stress or react in a negative manner that is visible to your staff? When you are undergoing change, one management expert suggests practicing a Japanese concept called shoshin or “beginner’s mind”–a state that allows you to be open to learning and change (Sullivan, p. 121). You can practice shoshin whether the change is externally applied or implemented by you. A state of openness will allow you to be aware of the benefits and pitfalls of the proposed change, from your perspective and that of the library staff. It will allow you to bring about the shift in states with more positive results.

You should always be seeking change, as you strive to provide the most effective services and products to meet the changing business needs of your customers. But, as you are undoubtedly aware, when you implement change in your library, you often encounter resistance, within yourself or from library staff. And resistance can lead to unexpected outcomes. For example, you discover that a new software application will allow you to automate a clerical activity that is the source of frustration for some of your staff. You decide to purchase this product but, to your dismay, staff members respond negatively because they perceive that you are trying to reduce their work and possibly downsize the library–not your intention at all.

Resistance arises out of fear of what the change will bring. The status quo may not be ideal, but for many people it is preferable to a change that brings an unknown way of working. Resistance to change manifests similarly at the individual, departmental, and organizational levels: inertia due to habit, fear due to loss of security, perceived threat to authority or responsibilities, potential negative economic implications, fear of the unknown (Robbins, p. 635). As the library manager, you should be aware of your own feelings about change and of the reasons why employees may resist new work processes and changes to library roles or staff structure.

How can you reduce the negative impact or negative responses to change? Awareness of people’s natural reactions to change is the starting point. Then you can use the following key practices to ease the implementation of change in your library:

1. Be aware of how you react to change and model behavior that shows a willingness to accept change.

Employees look to you for clues on how they should react to change, whether it is internally or externally introduced. If you know that you are somewhat resistant to change, making an effort to reduce your negative reactions and show an openness to change will lessen the possibility of a negative response from your staff. If you react to change with stress, it will be apparent to your staff that you are uncomfortable with what is happening and they will be uncomfortable, too. To model a positive attitude toward change, mentally step back from the personal effects of the change on you and concentrate on the larger benefits that the change is meant to bring.

2. Make sure you have a vision of the change and the reasons for it.

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If you are to effect change–to the organization of the library, to a process, or to a procedure–do you have a compelling vision of what the change is and how it will be implemented? Can you convey to your staff the need for the change and what it will mean in practical terms? If you cannot do this, you will not be able to convince your staff to accept the change, and it will be difficult to implement.

3. Communicate with those who will be affected by the change.

Before implementing any change, convey your vision for the change and its outcomes. During the change process, continue to provide timely communication to your staff and to customers who will be affected by the change. Include all the basic information about the proposed change, such as how it will affect them, the time frame for implementation, and the planned outcomes.

4. Involve the right people in the change process.

Involve all staff who will be affected by the change. Simply telling staff members about the change will not suffice; you should involve them, including seeking their input on the decision to make the change and how to implement it. If they are excluded from the process, the people who will be affected by the change can cause it to be delayed or to fail–some employees may simply become disgruntled, while others may attempt to sabotage the implementation of the change.

Staff members who will be affected should participate from the earliest stages in evaluating the need for change, planning the change, implementing it, and participating in the follow-up assessment. Staff participation will increase buy-in and will also help identify potential obstacles that you may not have anticipated but that may be obvious to your staff. If customers will be affected, make sure they understand why you are making the change and when it will be in place. Encourage customer feedback about the change.

5. Use negotiation and coercion, if necessary.

Negotiation and coercion are the last resort, but they may be required in extreme cases. Accept the fact that all your staff may not buy in, regardless of how well you involve them in the process. Respond to general negativity toward the change through communication and involvement, and by being open to employees’ suggestions. Be aware of specific employees who may attempt to sabotage the process by spreading their discontent. Make sure that these employees understand that their input is valued, but they will not be allowed to sabotage the process. In certain situations, you may have to use negotiation, coercion, and warnings to manage negative behavior.

As most of us can attest, change can bring about personal and professional rewards. It can also bring about a great deal of stress in the workplace. Change can result in unexpected results even with the most well-developed plans and appropriate staff input. Regardless of any unpredictability or difficulty, change is a certainty in all workplaces, including libraries. Library managers must continue to seek out change and to manage their own response to change. Through skilful change management, the implementation and results of change can become a more positive concept in libraries, for both managers and staff.

For More Information

Gaunt, Kevin. 2004. “Change is a challenge,” Management 51(3):69.

Jarrett, Michael. 2004. “Tuning in to the emotional drama of change: Extending the consultant’s bandwidth,” Journal of Change Management 4(3):247.

Robbins, Stephen P. 1998. Organizational Behavior, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sullivan, Jim. 2004. “Getting rid of Rusty: The key to change management,” NRN 38(33):2.

Debbie Schachter has a master’s degree in library science and a master’s degree in business administration. She is the associate executive director of the Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she is responsible for financial management, human resources, database and IT systems, and grant application management. Schachter has more than 15 years’ experience in management and supervision, technology planning and support, in a variety of nonprofit and for-profit settings. She can be reached at dschachter@jfsa.ca.

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