‘Thin’ advice on the management of change

The managerial tempo for many decades was stable, stable, stable, new management = restructuring, stable, stable….  Occupational health and safety (OHS) was relevant, if allowed, during the restructuring process when injuries, psychological illnesses and workers compensation claims increased.  The frequency of those restructures has increased, often in relation to executive churn, to a point when an organisation seems to be in a state of constant instability, resulting in an increased role for OHS and a major focus on Change Management.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) has released an article called “How to tell your team that organisational change is coming” but it sees organisational change as happening “from time to time” when experience in many companies is that change is a constant.  When one considers the OHS practice of continuous improvement, is organisational change misunderstood?

Here are the recommendations on organisational change:

  • “Plan more time that you ever thought necessary to prepare the content, the delivery and necessary follow-up.
  • Equip all levels of management to explain the context.
  • Describe the organisational pain, and how the new solution alleviates it.
  • Personalise both the impact and the resolution
  • Give the affected people as many options and as much participation as you can.
  • Demonstrate humility and responsibility, not just authority.”

There is a major assumption in this process – that organisational change is needed.  Executives must first be extremely clear on why the change is being done.  Often, this corresponds to new management when a CEO is expected to stamp their authority on the new approach, or apply a new broom.  Executives seem to feel obliged to differentiate themselves from the previous manager’s approach. But is this change necessary or is it about ego and stroking the Board?  Either way, should the workers carry the psychological disruption from these changes?

In OHS terms, any change to a work process requires effective consultation.  Restructuring creates hazards so any restructuring must assess how to control those risks and build that risk management into the change process.  The HBR article is more about the message of change rather than its management.

It assumes that “organisational pain” is inevitable.  It also assumes that the workers will support the change as long as they understand that the change is required.  The article advises companies to

“…focus on how customers have been hurt, how the business is incurring extra expense, the negative brand impact – and how the change will help mitigate those problems.”

Hang on.  Who was running the company when customers were hurt, when costs were not controlled or the brand’s reputation was damaged?  In these situations who has created the need for the organisational change?  The article says that it may help to review the “shared history”.  It may be more help if executives accepted that they have made bad decisions. One of the major tensions between workers and executives is a lack of accountability and clear lines of responsibility.  Accountability and responsibility is crucial in any change management process.

The most uncomfortable part of the article is in its recommendations about humility and responsibility.  It advises against describing the change as a “…shared responsibility” as this can “backfire”.  Workplace health and safety is often described as a shared responsibility, and it is, but this implies there is an equal responsibility and that is bullshit.  OHS legislation reflects the reality that the employer has a greater responsibility for workplace health and safety as they have control of production and are the major beneficiaries from the business’ operations.  Employers must provide a safe and healthy work environment.  Employees are obliged to work safely within that environment.

The intended readership of the Harvard Business Review is, not surprisingly, business operators, but it seems that often this readership is offered only part of a management process, or a step-by-step process that ignores the social complexities.  It may be a limitation of the articles’ format where authors need to break their advice into chunks rather than have the luxury of a contextualised story.  This current HBR can best be described as thin.

It is perhaps best to read the HBR article in conjunction with the new international Standard for OHS management systems (ISO45001) where Management of Change is addressed in clear and simple terms.  It advises

“The organisation shall establish a process(es) for the implementation and control of planned temporary and permanent changes that impact OH&S performance…..”


“The organisation shall review the consequences of unintended changes, taking action to mitigate any adverse effects, as necessary”.

Reviewing any organisational change through the OHS perspective, as is required by OHS laws and strongly recommended by ISO45001, can go a long way to reducing the physical and psychological impacts of the change but it can also improve the quality of, and justification for, that change beyond worker health and safety.  By considering OHS impacts prior to change, the management of change will gain more support and the management will regain, or strengthen, trust.

In a world of work that seems to be more changeable than ever with new employment structures, emerging hazards and unexpected consultative mechanisms, perhaps companies should not be anticipating organisational change but accepting that change is now the norm and that “stable, stable, stable” was something our parents experienced.

Kevin Jones

Categories accountability, business, change, culture, disruption, executives, Leadership, OHS, psychosocial, safety

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