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Change Management in Government Settings: Appreciation Can Help

To say that ‘change is occurring’ in government workplaces is a massive understatement. In fact, the amount and extent of change that is underway is almost too much for people to process.

Even though change is a common occurrence in the government sector, it is almost always viewed negatively. No one really likes the pain and extra effort associated with change (even if you agree with the direction of the change occurring.)

However, the way change is implemented (especially the relational aspects) is a primary reason why people resist change. As Paton and McCalman comment in their book Change Management, “the resentment that is often felt during the management of change is not resentment to change per se but to the processes by which it is managed”. Therefore, improving the process of how change is implemented can enhance change management efforts.

When employees, supervisors and managers feel appreciated for what they do and how they contribute to the organization’s success, the process of change within an organization goes more smoothly. Team members who feel valued are less reactive and more open to changes that affect them personally. Conversely, employees who feel unappreciated are more likely to react negatively to proposed changes, feeling like they have to defend themselves from “taken advantage of” by their organization.

3 Ways Appreciation Can Help

  1. First, appreciation facilitates effective behavior reinforcement, a key piece of day-to-day management. If you are trying to get people to change, then you need to positively reinforce the behavior you want. Negative reinforcement (i.e. punishment) can work at times, but it only gets people to do “just enough” to escape the punishment. In order for positive reinforcement to work best, it must be individualized and done in a way so that the recipient can “hear” it. Learning the preferred language of appreciation of employees is critical to effectively connecting with them.
  1. Authentic appreciation also creates emotional energy for change. In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath describe two agents inside every person that affect change: the elephant [emotions, desire] and the rider [willpower, mind]. The rider [will power] can “white-knuckle” change for a while (think about a diet that only lasts 4 days), but long-lasting change requires getting the elephant [emotions] in line with the desired change. Negative reinforcement (e.g., an ultimatum to increase productivity in 30 days or get fired) appeals to one’s will power, but negatively affects the recipient’s emotions (when was the last time you wanted to give extra effort for the boss who threatened to terminate you?). On the other hand, communicating appreciation creates positive emotional energy for change.
  1. Third, when employees feel truly valued, they are less resistant to change. Unfortunately, we all have known individuals who were against an idea just because they didn’t like the person or organization advocating for that idea. Sometimes people resist change because of the process or person implementing it – not because they are against the change itself. Communicating authentic appreciation helps managers reduce resistance to change by demonstrating that you value them, which in turns leads to increased trust.

When Changes Happens to You

Government leaders who are the recipients rather than the facilitators of change can also take steps to improve the change process.

Individuals who are on the receiving end of change can focus on peer appreciation. It is becoming increasingly clear that employees need to feel valued by both their supervisors and their colleagues. In fact, we have found that when employees and supervisors consistently (and effectively) communicate appreciation to their colleagues, the positive results occur more quickly, are more dramatic in their intensity, and the “staying power” of their effect is longer lasting.

Leaders in training should focus on themselves first. First, conduct a self-assessment. Consider, “What am I doing that really isn’t that helpful in creating a positive workplace?” This could include both actions (complaining about a co-worker to another colleague) and attitudes (harboring anger and grudges for past offenses).

The second pro-active step you can take is to actively disengage from participating in negative interactions. This can mean – quit complaining (remember the saying, “If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all”?). Also, when you are involved in a group discussion and it turns negative, excuse yourself. You don’t have to say anything, and don’t judge others. Just quietly excuse yourself and don’t contribute. Your leaving will send a message – and may lead to a follow-up discussion with one of the team members (“I noticed you left when we starting griping about the leadership’s lack of communication.” “Yea, I’ve decided to try to not engage in that type of discussion. I’ve found it really isn’t helpful.”)

Beginning to communicate positive messages to others is the third simple step we each can take. Often, the easiest way is to share your appreciation for your teammates, and the work they do. A simple “thanks” can be meaningful – especially if it specific (“Jen, thanks for getting your report to me on time. That will help me get the information together for the manager’s meeting without having to rush at the last minute.”) This can be effective in “softening up” even those colleagues who seem fairly hardened and angry, though it may take some time.

Appreciation is a powerful tool for change management when done with authenticity. Agencies are positively affected when employees feel truly valued, including increased productivity, reduced turnover and higher customer satisfaction ratings. As leaders anticipate implementing major changes in their organization, they would be wise to first lay a foundation of communicating appreciation for their team members prior to instituting the change process.

This article was written by Dr. Paul White.  He is an author, speaker and psychologist, who helps “make work relationships work”.  He is the coauthor of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman and his book, The Vibrant Workplace, will release in April 2017. For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com.

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