Difficult conversations are hard but necessary

16th August 2020

Nobody ever said change was easy.  As humans we seem to be ‘wired’ to resist change, with even the smallest, seemingly insignificant of changes sometimes causing annoyance and resistance.  Think back to the last time you upgraded your computer operating system and certain features or programmes had moved — even though you knew the new version was faster and better, you probably spent a few days cursing the developers for changing things.

If we get annoyed over something so inconsequential as the positioning of a few icons, it’s easy to see how large organisational change will quite understandably cause unease and even upset.  As practitioners we are often working on initiatives that will have a wide range of positive impacts; however there will often be some people who feel negatively impacted. Whilst we should, of course, work with our stakeholders to try to find solutions that are acceptable to all, we also need to be realistic and acknowledge that eliminating all negative impacts isn’t always possible.  The introduction of role changes and redundancies is unlikely to be welcomed, however much sugar coating is added.

Difficult conversations bring clarity

This brings us to an important point.  As front-line change practitioners, we often have more ‘face time’ with those affected by change than senior management.  We are the eyes and the ears of the project, understanding folks’ concerns and helping them navigate through a changing organisational context.  When looking into a stakeholder’s eyes and seeing fear, it is tempting to spin the situation into something that they want to hear — to tell them that the change won’t be too wide-ranging and it’s probably years away anyway. It avoids the risk that they will direct their anger at us even though the decisions have been made elsewhere. Wanting to quell someone’s fear is a very human response; it makes them feel less uncertain, and it avoids an uncomfortable conversation.

There will be times when this will be appropriate — particularly where the future is so uncertain that there really isn’t anything concrete to communicate.  Yet in other times it is an opportunity to show real empathy and candour.  If the change really is widespread and will impact them in some way (and if there are no overriding reasons why the information can’t be disclosed to them) then surely the ethical thing to do is tell it to them straight and have the difficult conversation early?  In doing so, we help them understand exactly what is happening, why it is happening, the timescales, and what it means for them.  We can be there to support them, to find a channel to raise their concerns, and to ensure that whatever solution/change is implemented meets their needs in some way wherever this is possible.

You might be reading this thinking “surely this is the job of management?”.  That is absolutely true, but let’s be honest — most workers in most organisations are overrun with communication.  When large-scale change is happening there are emails, calls, meetings and all sorts of other forums.  This communication, by its nature, tends to be ‘one-to-many’.  Someone on the front line might genuinely just want to know “what does all this mean for me?”.  Corporate presentations that talk about profit, new ‘leverage points’ and ‘pivots’ are unlikely to resonate with everyone in the organisation.  Line managers will of course offer support, but so often they are overrun themselves.  By being on hand to empathetically support the official messaging, we can provide a real service to the organisation and the people who are affected.

This also provides us with the opportunity to raise concerns to those in power.  We can anonymously amplify the concerns of those that we speak to (if they would rather not be named) by discussing ‘themes’.  We can act as an unofficial conduit between those affected by, and those defining the change.  In doing so we’ll ensure that communication flows more effectively, and that the people we work with feel better informed.  This will help contribute towards better decision-making and better project outcomes. It might feel uncomfortable in the short term, but it is the right thing to do!


by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert