It is often necessary to make big changes in organizations. Companies get locked into old patterns, fall behind competitors, or otherwise end up poorly aligned to their markets and objectives. When this happens, the best course of action may be to pull the plug on the status quo and make big organizational changes. There are obvious risks in this – and also hidden ones that are less recognized.
When you make the decision to change, it can be risky, but as hard as it is, it is often much better than the alternative. Much attention is put on managing team psychology during change initiatives and restructuring: Keep your talented employees, hire new talent, manage buy-in, build team cohesiveness, etc. These are usually taken as the core challenges during a big change. What is less-well-recognized is the importance of managing the psychology of the decision makers too, as it can be very difficult to recognize when enough is enough. The psychology of how rewards and motivations are wired into our brains makes this a major challenge.
It comes down to Motivational Drivers:
Motivational Drivers are the fuel behind what team members do and why they do it. Ask yourself: What gives you the energy to roll out of bed every morning, put our shoes on, and show up at the office with your game face on. Every team member has their own motivational drivers, but general patterns are useful to consider:
- For engineers and technical people, the Motivational Driver is most often to build things. To build elegant solutions with creativity and skill. “I built this” is the internal dialog.
- For lawyers, the bias is often to make companies and contracts bulletproof, or to find holes in the work of other lawyers at other companies. “I foresaw this and avoided it” or “I found a way in and won the case” are the dialogs here.
- For managers, the Motivational Drivers are to change things, and leave their mark on the organization. “I recognized a problem, and made it better by moving people and processes around” is the voice of success here.
This last bit about managers can be a boon, but like any motivational bias can also be a dilemma — especially in organizations that are undergoing massive change.
The issue is one of proportion and our human sense of continuity: When you initiate Big Changes there is an initial sense of momentum and accomplishment. The opportunity to drive Big Change is rare, so when managers get the go-ahead to execute big plans, powerful emotions come to the surface. The problem comes in the following days: After the Big Changes are underway, what do managers do for an encore? After the Big Changes are put in place, what do they do to maintain the sense of progress the next day? The feeling of accomplishment gets very hard to reproduce without more changes put into action. From the perspective of the managers, the sense of being a catalyst for improvement diminishes in the days and months following Big Changes. This is where the problems can arise:
Just when managers should be scaling down their interventions and reining-in their policy changing, they often feel the strong incentive to change MORE in order to seek continuity of their feeling of efficacy. Once we have made Big Changes, without more big things to change today we may not feel like we are being effective. For the manager, this phenomenon can feel like a ‘loss of momentum’, ‘not doing their job’, or even boredom. This can be a huge problem.
Organizations (that is to say, the people in organizations) need stability. They need to know where they stand, to know what the company needs them to do, how the company is performing, and to know to some degree what to expect tomorrow and the day after. Big organizational change temporarily robs employees of stability and thus comes at a price. Just as chemotherapy may be the right thing for a patient, we know that it has serious side effects. Big organizational change also has serious side effects such as loss of morale, loss of focus, and the unwanted departure of star employees. The goal in Big Change, therefore, is to get it over with it quickly – a race to stability.
Take-Away: Top managers need to become cognizant of their own motivational drivers and to stay keenly aware of how their actions affect their teams. In reorganization scenarios, effective management requires us to quickly put change in place and promptly ramp down instigation of organizational change as the big wave of mandates takes hold.
Big changes are (and should be) rare. Enjoy the moment, and move on.
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