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The Change Gremlin: Is Feeding It After Midnight An Urban Legend?

The Change Gremlin: Is Feeding It After Midnight An Urban Legend?

It was 1984 and I had just arrived with my family in Germany for my new military assignment. My children were eager to see this new (and I thought silly) Warner Brothers movie called Gremlins. It was about cute fluffy little creatures called Mogwai. Like everything else in life with kids, you have to follow some simple rules to take care of the new pet. Rule Number 1: You could not get them wet. If you did, they would multiply like mosquitoes after a hard summer’s rain and would be just as annoying. The second rule was the most important. You could NEVER, and I repeat NEVER feed them after midnight, because if you did…VERY bad things would happen and your cute fluffy little Mogwai would turn into a vile, evil, mischievous, murderous little monster…you know…a gremlin!   

Many of us are convinced the latest change decree concocted by the corporate lords on high equates to the cute little change Mogwai  Gizmo who is maliciously fed after midnight by evil corporate Darth and Dartha Vaders who take perverse delight in making our lives as miserable as possible and our workplace a condo in Dante’s Inferno.

Now the mavens of this organizational change see only the cute little Gizmo, but those who are facing the change unprepared see only Gizmo after he has had a good after midnight snack and turns into Stripe the evil Gremlin. This begs the question of how does the organization manage and communicate change AND facilitate a process where everyone views the change through the same lens?

International business consultant Phillip Atkinson (2005) highlights principles in successfully managing organizational change.  Atkinson argues that change management is not an academic exercise, the issuing of memos and directives and assuming that by the power of pronouncement and royal decree, that the employees will accept it.

In reality, we all live in a world where change is constant. People must be prepared for status –quo disrupting or destroying change; change that literally bounces them out of their comfort zones. For leaders, change is not a spectator sport. It is an active personal process requiring the leader’s willing involvement in guiding the organization through the change swamp and communicating why that journey is necessary. This journey however, should not be undertaken lightly. Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University wisely advised that before leaders embark on that journey into the swamp of organizational change, the proposed change should have a purpose, be timed and should not be made simply for the sake of change. (1987).

Organizational change, especially that soul destroying, organizational disintegrating, new form transforming change is far more involved than simply performing legacy processes and procedures differently. True organizational change requires a behavioral and mindset transformation that each leader at every organizational level has to model and every employee will have to emulate, eventually accept and commit to. Because sometimes that change doesn’t mean “thinking out of the box”, it means burning the box and scattering the ashes!

Atkinson cites that organizational development research reveals that 90 percent of culture change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives due to the inability of organizations to effectively manage change and managing change in larger organizations is more difficult (2005).  This doesn’t mean that change is nearly impossible in larger organizations, but as indicated by research of Robert K. McMahon from Oxford University, leaders must be cognizant of and be prepared to effectively deal with organizational sub-cultures in the change management process as the leaders will have a tougher sell in organizations that are geographically dispersed and rigidly hierarchal (2000). Atkinson further argues that the idea of the change will have to be communicated and percolate throughout the organization. Employees in the front and back office operations will have to see what is in it for them, and how it relates to what they do.

Atkinson provides a process for managing change. As was previously stated, leaders are a vital link in successful change management. Leaders must realize that resistance to change is a natural and healthy response and not something to be feared or to fight against. Unlike the notorious villainous Borg of Star Trek fame, who warn potential victims that “Resistance is futile”; resistance to change, if harnessed effectively, actually becomes a positive tool. It can become a powerful resource for the exchange of ideas, obtaining employee input and forming the foundation for a healthy constructive debate.

Here is how:

Leadership introspection:Leaders must examine their reactions to change through an honest introspection of their feelings, attitudes, old habits they will have to discard and new habits that will have to be formed. This introspection will allow the leaders to gain an understanding of how change affects them and allow them through empathy, understand how the change will affect their employees. This step takes courage and personal honesty because, while some leaders are engaged in an organizational “Rah-rah Pitch-a-thon” about the change, other organizational leaders are struggling with accepting the change themselves.

Power of persuasion: Next, the leaders must be prepared to use persuasion to sell the benefits of the change to the organization. Simply informing employees about the change is not enough. Atkinson advises that the leader should note all of the objections to the change, the reasons behind them, provide a creative and logical response to those objections and use the opportunity to obtain input from employees to solicit suggestions that may address an aspect of the change or changes that were not previously considered. This approach will allow the leader in defuse the effects of the employee grapevine and provide employees the real story instead of the imagined reasons for the change.

The use of persuasion will avoid the inevitable power struggle by attempting to win the argument. This action will avoid the train wreck of change failure as uncommitted subordinate leaders and employees seek imaginative and creative ways to sabotage and obstruct the proposed organizational changes especially if the “old way of doing things” was popular and comfortable.  Instead, leaders should seek ways to assist employees with reframing their objections so that they can see the bigger picture, allow them to look beyond the narrower viewpoint of those objections and glean how the change will benefit not only the organization, but them personally. Next, Atkinson asserts that change shouldn’t be rushed. In order for the change to take in the employee mindset, employees need time to accept the change and think through the impact on them and their lives. In essence, a time for grieving is necessary for acceptance to be successful (2005).   

Effective communication: All of this effort will be wasted if the change is not effectively communicated. This communication process not only ensures that the organization’s leaders address the issues in an honest and forthright manner so that the concerns from all parts of the organization are effectively addressed, but that the leaders publicly model the behaviors required for the change and are being honest and humble in addressing issues. Employees will eventually accept the need for the change and the adjustments they must make, but what they will not buy is deception and leadership hypocrisy.

Collaborative implementation: Finally, the implementation of successful organizational requires the combined committed effort, energy and resources of every level of the organization along with a winning attitude that combines a shared vision of the future, focusing on the present tasks at hand,  learning from history while maintaining a link to the past to preserve the good (Minzberg, 1987).  

You see, the process in dealing with the change gremlin is not as fearsome as you may think, and in fact, you might even enjoy sharing that after-midnight snack with a Change Gizmo!

References:

Atkinson, P. (2005), Managing resistance to change, Management Services; Spring,49(1), 14-19.  

McMahon, R.K., (2004), Changing the organization but maintaining the culture: The centrality of organizational mission to the reform process. An overview of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency for England and Wales, Strategic Change, 13(6), 323-332.,

Mintzberg, H, (1987), Crafting strategy, Harvard Business Review,65(4), 66-75.

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Colonel (Ret) Terry Fobbs, PhD, Consultant and Facilitator for Gailforce Resources, is an accomplished public speaker, facilitator and media commentator on human resources, leadership, motivational, national security and community issues. With a BS-Zoology, MBA, Masters in-Strategic Studies, PhD- in Organization & Management specializing in Leadership, Terry has earned the respect of his peers, employer and Gailforce clientele. Terry is an ISO 9000 Certified Lead Assessor, a Baldrige Quality Examiner with the Center for Excellence in Education and the Michigan Quality Council and a recipient of the Michigan Quality Council Quality Hero Award. Terry has served as an adjunct instructor in Business Management for the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Academy of Management and serves as a member of the Academy’s Organizational Development and Entrepreneurship committees. Terry plays active consulting and facilitating roles for Gailforce Resources, working with CEO’s, Boards of Directors, Business Owners, Municipalities and Sector Groups to turn their business strategy into execution and their people into valuable business assets.

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