Making change bearable

Making change bearable

By Ben Teehankee

The View From Taft, Business World

July 8, 2008

Karen (not her real name) is a young professional in her 20s who worked in a well-established organization. Like most workers her age she wanted to make a difference in her organization. She worked long hours and often beyond the call of duty to make sure that she yielded good results for her clients and the organization as a whole. As far as she was concerned, the organization would take care of her as long as she did her work well – and she did so for several years. Her projects and programs were significant contributions to the organization and these had already borne fruit.

But her quiet world of work was shaken when the top management of her organization decided to merge with another larger organization. Management argued that the merger was necessary in order to improve benefits for clients and for achieving synergy between the two organizations in general. Events unfolded quickly and before she knew it, Karen received an official termination letter. She was devastated. Not only did the letter come as a surprise, the fact that it was given by a staff member of HR and not even discussed with her by a superior added to her distress. She was confused. Had she not served the organization well? Were her programs not valuable contributions? Were they even considered? Who was going to take care of the programs? What was to become of her?

No answers were forthcoming. In the process of the merger, management had taken little time to analyze the transitioning of Karen’s programs. Worse, no evaluation had been done of her own value to the merged organization and how she could be best redeployed. The letter she received met all the legal requirements, of course, but this was small comfort. She felt that she had been allowed to fall by the wayside as the train of the merger sped by. Her dignity was in tatters.

Karen’s experience is not unique. The mishandling of change initiatives like mergers and down-sizing has caused untold miseries on many talented and hard-working individuals. The striking thing is that the managers responsible are often oblivious of the deplorable effects of their decisions on people. The reason is not because these individuals lack basic decency -- they are often exemplary persons. Rather, the reason is the limited view of management as a profession in organizations and in society as a whole.

Doctors, engineers, nurses, and lawyers are professionals. They are equipped with technical expertise and skills beyond those possessed by ordinary people. As a result, they have considerable power to affect the lives of people and, collectively, the nature of social living itself. When professionals are licensed by government, they are reminded of these facts and the resulting duty for them to always protect the welfare of those affected by their decisions.

Take doctors, for example. Their expertise in diagnosis, prescription and surgery gives them broad powers to affect the physical and psychological well-being of patients. They do not take these powers lightly; the consequence of prescribing the wrong medicine or botching a surgical procedure on a patient can be severe. Therefore, doctors take extraordinary precautions in doing their work. They take pains in assessing the condition of a patient and his readiness for whatever treatment plan might be considered. Should an operation be absolutely necessary for the patient’s health, a doctor-in-charge will work with fellow specialists to make the patient as comfortable and as safe as possible. Most importantly, they are in constant communication with the patient while all of these considerations are being made. Doctors consider the patient’s inputs and capacity to make decisions. They are bound by their professional ethics to do so. Doctors do all these to protect the patient’s welfare.

What about organizational managers? Ideally, managers should think like professionals. They do have expertise that most people do not have, whether in operations, finance, law, marketing, etc. Their decisions have the power to affect the lives of people in many ways. Their authority to direct, supervise and implement changes affects the working hours, self-esteem and even health of their subordinates. Their power to discipline and even terminate workers can affect the very livelihood and means of survival of these individuals.

Thus, managers need to always be prudent and vigilant. They need to examine the human ramifications of their decisions. They must regularly communicate with affected individuals and make sure that any negative effects are necessary. They need to cushion the discomforts, confusion and the indignities that often go with organizational change. It is their professional duty to make changes fair and bearable -- for Karen and for all people who will be affected by such changes.