Why HR should hate change just a little bit more

I often hear HR professionals express how comfortable they are with change, how much they like it. I find this both peculiar and a little bit terrifying. The curse of many a modern business is the almost incessant approach to instigating  change. Initiative after initiative, programme after programme, with never enough time between them to properly evaluate or measure impact.

Normally these initiatives are driven by the leadership team and eagerly pounced on by HR leaders to show how committed they are to delivering the corporate agenda. I figure that’s why so many of them profess to like change; it provides the organisational hard-on of temporary, central importance.

Most of the time, we completely overlook the emotional and psychological impact of change. Success is measured in operational plans, in business cases, on gant charts and in milestones. Success is a tick box exercise.

And of course, as we all know, if the change really was that successful, it would only need to be done once.

Many organisations, many if not most employees, are change fatigued. They’re walking zombie-like waiting for the next initiative to come and fail. In the meantime, trying to do their jobs despite the machinations of their leaders to seemingly make things harder. Don’t believe me? Spend a day in any FTSE100 company or any part of the public sector and speak to the people actually doing the work.

Where is HR in all this? Well certainly not where it needs to be, understanding the impact of the changes on employees, diagnosing real organisational performance issues and challenging the business to fine tune and not continually volt-face like a goldfish in the throws of a drug induced epileptic fit.

I don’t want HR people to like change, I don’t want them to be comfortable with it. I actually want them to hate it a little bit more, to be wary of it. That way, they might take it a bit more seriously and think about the implications on the wider organisations. Not just where they’re going to get the next pat on the head.

19 comments

  1. daviddsouza180 · March 24, 2014

    Are they change fatigued or struggling to keep up with initiatives and positioning and redrafted mission statements? I’m not sure I want people to be wary – but to be mindful and aware that these are real people with other stuff going on, apart from the latest manifesto launch? I’d definitely like them to be that. I’m worried about your goldfish.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I think there is a great balance to be achieved between being excited and being wary. That is the place to inhabit.

  2. Scott McArthur · March 24, 2014

    Nice way of looking at a complex and highly nuanced topic. Change is much much misunderstood and most of the guff we read about (including many of the methodologies) is what I call “in vitro change” from people who haven’t actually been involved in true change. Another interesting issue is that many “change leaders/managers” are part of corporate IT functions – why and why not HR?

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Because the computer said no…….

  3. Sukh Pabial · March 24, 2014

    I get it, I do. And I’m imagineering an interview where I ask the question and someone responds “I think change is bad for organisations and we should focus on what we’re doing well instead.”

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I’d employ anyone who said, “change per se isn’t a good thing, let’s focus on our strengths and really amplify those”.

  4. GrumpyLecturer · March 25, 2014

    Organisational change is fraught with danger continual organisational change not only confuses employees but results in their disengagement from any change as they are aware a ‘newer’ change will be forced upon them in the near future.

    So why is so much emphasis being placed on continual organisational change?

    Human Resource Management (HRM) has no clear ideological underpinning. It is very difficult to get HRM practitioners to actual agree on a definitive definition of what HRM is supposed to be.
    ‘Soft’ or ‘Hard’, ‘Human’ or ‘Resource’ driven, ‘Managerial’ or ‘Employee’ centred, ‘efficiency’ or ‘effectiveness’ seeking. The list is endless. The inability of HRM to define itself leaves the arena of Employee Relations open to any seemingly ‘good idea’ from some pseudo-expert to be floated and implemented as a further experiment in the behavioural laboratory that has become the workplace.

    HRM must be seen to be making an impact for its own survival as it is now ‘Big Business’ in itself. The HRM stone having been pushed down the hill in the mid 1980’s must reinvent itself periodically with a new ‘fad’ to show its relevance to business owners.

    In so doing its original philosophy of changing the confrontational relationship between employers and employees that plagued Industrial Relations in the past has been abandoned as HRM at least understands that their future depends on creating alliances with employers.

    Employees are not stupid and they are at last realising this. The activities of HRM may actually end up being counterintuitive in driving people back to Trade Unionism.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I almost agree, until the last line and then I think, “yeah, don’t hold your breath”

  5. patrickhadfield · March 25, 2014

    I think this isn’t just about change, and it isn’t just about HR, either.

    My experience is that within most parts of large organisations, there isn’t enough thinking or challenge: for all the Powerpoint presentations and spreadsheets, there is little real rigour and most people go with the party line.

    In part this helps decision making (and very often I beleive it doesn’t really matter what is decided as long as a decision is reached, and then stuck to).

    But it also means there is little reason to stick to decisions. Hence the constant flow of change initiatives.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Great point of view, agree. Thank you.

  6. helenjamery · March 26, 2014

    Patrick, I think you’re absolutely right and maybe every function gets a warm fuzzy glow when they’re central to a change but, as those responsible for the people stuff, we in HR need to be observing that behaviour and talking about it with the right people. Because no matter who you are or which function you work for, if you’re more focussed on the pride/excitement/kudos of being on the inside track of something then chances are you’ve already forgotten about what this means for the people who’ll be affected.

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  8. Steve Hearsum (@stevehearsum) · March 31, 2014

    Good post, Neil. My background includes periods when I worked on ‘change programmes’, and now, although I now work in OD and leadership development, I have the pleasure of delivering a programme about leading and delivering change. I say this not as a plug for myself or employer, rather to frame my point, based on my experience as being ‘on the end of change’ (employee), responsible for helping/making it happen (consultant) and helping others to make sense of it and lead it (facilitator). And all that across multiple sectors and contexts.

    In a nutshell, I struggle with the rhetoric of change, in particular the thingy-fication, the notion that it can be ‘landed’, that it is finite, and somehow out there to be tackled, enjoyed, endured, or whatever else. My take is that if the emphasis was placed on our capacity to adapt, rather than change, the conversation shifts.

    I also like Patrick’s point above, specifically around the lack of thinking and challenge that often goes on. Weirdly, honesty and straight talking seems to evaporate or become obfuscated when change is in the air in many organisations, especially when it comes to challenging upwards. Pity really, as unless you protect and listen to the voices from below, you are, in all probability, stuffed.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Totally agree Steve and thanks for bringing in a different view point.

  9. shanonwynonna · April 28, 2014

    Either if it’s a company or a person who constantly changes, there is indeed the risk of it or him not being taken seriously, anymore, that is very true. Whom could you respect, when you have no solid image, built in time? Apparently, though, this is what the 2014 challenge will be for the HR world; according to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends Report for 2014, HR people need to reskill their function, because 42 percent of business leaders believe their HR teams are underperforming or just getting by.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      And Deloitte know just the group of consultants that can help……… 🙂

      Seriously, thanks for commenting.

  10. Hiral Desai · May 12, 2014

    That’s the best way to move our organization forward. Instead of opting for change we should look upon the areas were we are good enough and should look forward to it.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Absolutely. Emphasise and amplify the strengths. Thank you.

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