Explaining change in the Workplace

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Critical Success Factors for Explaining Change in the Workplace

Examining the many change initiatives that I have been involved in helps me identify critical success factors. I have enough examples that I can compare initiatives to find best practice and the consequences when that best practice is missing.

Top of my list for truly transformational change is the need to explain the reasons for the change, before launching details of what the change is going to be. If you can generate a heartfelt need in staff for change, there is a good chance that they will start to design the change for themselves. This reduces the amount of the change that is imposed which in turn reduces the amount of resistance to the change.

Set the widest possible context

An important element in creating the awareness of the need for change is bringing in the outside world.  Lift the conversation away from your organisation and set the context of the change at the most macro level of all – how the modern world is operating.

  • Describe advances in technology
  • Highlight new demands from customers
  • Describe innovations in your industry

This gives staff the examples that enable them to make their own comparisons that enable them to see that their existing practices are out of step with how the rest of the world is doing things.

Edgar Schein in his book Organisational Change Management referred to this desire for change as “disconfirmation” which is the disturbing belief that it is not possible to stay where we are. It is the realisation that maintaining the status quo is not a risk-free strategy, because staying where we are will put us at a disadvantage with others who are moving forward.

Empathise with stakeholders

I am currently helping a team launch a change of culture in their organisation and they are working hard to establish a felt need for change, just as I have described above. However, they have hit a common problem with cultural change programmes: not all stakeholder groups feel the need for change. In this case, there is a generational and hierarchical difference. Older senior managers believe that everything is fine as it is, whilst younger, more junior members of staff think it is obvious that things need to change.

To tackle this disparity we are working hard to explain the need for change in ways that resonate with the older members of staff. Avoid using comparisons of ‘disrupters’ in their field e.g. apps instead of bricks and mortar companies (on-line banks, retailers etc) or new joiners to the economy such as the oft quoted examples from the ‘gig economy’ e.g. Uber.

This is because the people we want to feel the need for change have no understanding of these organisations. Too often they have been in place in their own organisation for decades, and have no experience of working for other companies.

Certain elements need to be in place for people to understand the need for change:

  • They will see the need if they can identify with the problem or opportunity
  • They cannot identify with an opportunity if they have no experience of the situation
  • People think about the things they can remember
  • People remember things that resonate with them

Find a common frame of reference

When explaining change in the workplace, it’s important to find this common frame of reference from their own experience. I like to use examples told by influential stakeholders and this often means the age and seniority that this group will respect. So ideally people with a few years more experience who have done well in their careers by conventional measures.

Create a common starting point by empathising with the fast pace of change. Give lots of examples of how things have speeded up in real life e.g. from VCR to Youtube and now iPlayer and Netflix (there are some great video clips of examples of the pace of change on Youtube).

If you are trying to highlight changes in leadership and management behaviour, using clips from TV shows set in offices can be useful. Contrast the deferential hierarchy of the 1970s, the go-getting 1980s and the increase in women role models from the 1990s.

Then use clips from shows created in the last year (crucially post #MeToo) to show how leadership works now.

  • Ask people what they think the gains and the losses have been.
  • Facilitate a discussion of what new joiners expect from their leadership.
  • Try and get them to walk in the shoes of another generation and capture all of the factors they identify.
  • Then introduce survey material from millennials showing their priorities for effective workplaces.

Use these factors to get your audience to do an assessment of how their leadership compares. Ask them to feed back their observations and use this as a starting point for collaborating on an action plan to improve the situation.


Creating a belief that the change is needed is the real hard work of explaining change in the workplace. It is so much more important than telling people want is changing. However, how many announcements of change have you been to when there are a few sentences about why we need to change before the scope and vision are set out in detail? We are communicating with our audience badly and we need to improve. Share your ideas for better communicating change and generating a felt need for change.