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How Change Affects Teams

May 1, 2008 by Ruth Gmehlin, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

The only constant in life is change, especially in our current day fast moving business world. There is an entire body of knowledge devoted to change management; the focus of this article specifically deals with how change affects team dynamics and productivity. Change is a constant part of the normal management process, not something that needs attention every once in a while. Managers without an understanding of the different ways in which their people respond to change encounter great difficulty in navigating through change successfully. When dealing with change, communication skills are paramount, as well as a solid understanding of the human issues involved. The success stories of winning companies are usually characterized by their ability to effectively exploit and manage change situations.

Teams Face Internal and External Changes

Change can come from both internal and external sources, impacting teams in different ways. Typically when change comes from an internal source, it is planned or executed in a systematic fashion by the organization. Restructuring, forming of a new team or department, the decision to hire a new manager or additional team members, layoffs or simply changing the way in which work is being done, are all common internal sources of change. Management has a certain amount of control over these internal driven changes, which can cause negative reactions towards the organization from affected employees.

Alternatively, external events that cause change, such as new legislation, the actions of competitors, or political upheaval, can trigger a different reaction to change within an organization. Teams often react more positively to these changes, as it unites employees, managers, and executives to work together for a common cause and ensure the organization is dealing with the change appropriately.

People Deal With Change Differently

Change and how it is handled can strengthen, weaken or stabilize a team. People react to change in many different ways and for very individual reasons. It is important for managers to be aware of how each of member of a team deals with change. How do you handle change? How does your reaction directly impact the dynamic and efficiency of your team? There are typically four distinct behavioural reactions to change:

  • People who thrive on change - With their direct, results-oriented approach they embrace quick decisions and changes, new products and procedures. They are usually the ones that initiate the change activity within a team and challenge the status quo.
  • People who are not bothered by change - They are the optimists, their enthusiasm and creative solutions to handling change keeps everyone motivated during flux situations.
  • People who resist change and need time to prepare - They are steady decision makers and do not like to be rushed. They will put-up with change and it may not be easy to tell how deeply they are impacted by the changes around them until much later.
  • People who are concerned with the effects of change - Cautious and careful they are the objective thinkers on the team and seek to maintain the high standards regardless of the changes going on around them.
A solid and effective team is made up of all these types of people; they need each other to keep the team in balance when dealing with change. Managers should first have a good understanding of how individual reactions will impact team productivity before they can manage the change properly on a team level.

Helping a Team Through Change

In order to suitably prepare a team for change, the first step is for the manager to take time to analyze how the change will impact the team and each individual. The next step is to involve the entire team in this process. Time and care should be taken to prepare for this team discussion.

When communicating change to a team, a manager should:

  • Host regular team meetings to communicate upcoming changes
  • Discuss positive and negative implications
  • Provide a reason to adopt the change and create a shared understanding with the team
  • Allow employees opportunities to question, challenge and propose alternatives in the change process
  • Assess potential barriers and resistance

Addressing the Challenges of Change

There will always be challenges when implementing change, such as resistance or lack of understanding of the new roles and procedures. Meeting with employees individually to identify potential issues and concerns is important in overcoming barriers and cannot be stressed enough. As well, sharing agreed upon metrics and creating a sense of urgency for the team to continue to improve will keep the momentum going.

The final stage of moving through change -- is to formalize the changes. Team leaders need to be sure they finalize a plan to anchor the changes that have occurred on the team. They should select metrics for the team to measure success by and revisit these often. Change is always easier for all concerned when those most affected have a measure of control over the implementation.