Stages of Change Management from the Employee Breakroom

By Dan Bursik
SVP Best Practices

Change Management is tough work but it is so critically linked to the process of continuous improvement that Labor Directors and Store Managers must successfully architect and build within their organizations.

Almost every initiative will find a certain group of eager early adaptors. Likewise, you can bet the farm that you will have your naysayers and diehards on the other end of the scale. If you work the change management process well, you will often find your best spokespeople and local heroes from the pool of skeptical naysayers who are capable of making and ultimately celebrating the change.

But aside from the extremes – the eager firsts and the chronic skeptics – change management is about moving the vast middle, the herd, the undecided inertia-prone average Janes and Joes who don’t leap before they look but aren’t steadfastly opposed to leaping at all.

Books have been written on the stages of change management alignment. In grocery stores, change initiatives often play out in breakroom conversations that run through similar change management phases. In my experience, there is a likely progression of breakroom change pushback, punctuated by Mountain Dew, apple fritters, Frito Lay snacks and coffee still simmering from the night crew. It may take a week or two for these stages to occur, but you should learn to expect them:

  • He said what? No, we shouldn’t change that. He’s crazy, but I think he’s serious.
  • Who does he think he is? You know, we’ve outlasted all the guys before him and sooner or later he will be replaced too. We won’t have to change.
  • He’s not going away. You know, we could change it if we really had to.
  • Maybe it’s not a completely stupid idea. The test stores actually seem to like it.
  • Actually, this could work and it might help those other guys do a better job.
  • OK, we can do this. Really, it’s no big deal.

And, well after the change is managed, don’t be surprised if you also hear these add-ons:

  • I was actually thinking we needed to do something like that.
  • I’m glad it finally got done. I don’t see why it took so long to do it.

Count on them: disbelief, questioning authority, denial, testing tenacity, revisiting the merits, reflecting on shared experience, and resigning to (if not embracing) progress. All of these are stage-gates that people navigate to care, cope, and to attempt to control their environment. Change management is your way of helping them work through the stages.

In the long run, open communication, real-world problem-solving, and helping most folks to understand the need for change and survive the journey are the keys to navigating the stages of change. Work it well, and you can overcome the inertia of the middle. But understand your entire audience: the eager adaptors, the skeptics, and the vast heartland of the under committed. You can hear all their voices at the breakroom table.

Like archetypal beasts of burden taking in sustenance, there are stages of change that occur from raw grass intake to motion and methane. Or, like children on a field trip, there are always line leaders, stragglers, and the vast mob in the middle just doing what they have been doing, but eventually changing their direction when it’s clearly time to get on the bus.

Help everyone understand why the change is needed, what’s in it for them, and what the improved end state will be like for them, for the business and for your customers. You won’t get everyone to support the effort up front, but the open dialog will insure that everyone who can make the journey will be with you as soon as they can make it.

Change management is a process; not an event. Your efforts in leading and navigating the path of others will make a great difference in the speed of change and the lasting success of the changes you make.