How to leverage change management in HR

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Published: June 17, 2024 | by Natasha K. A. Wiebusch, Brightmine Marketing Content Manager

Since 2020, employers and employees have learned all too well that Heraclitus’ quote from ancient Greece is more relevant now than ever. He said, “The only thing constant is change.”

To navigate change and deliver greater business impact, human resources needs to leverage its own change management strategies.

In this article, we explore how HR shapes and stays abreast of change, the methods HR can use to navigate change, and more.

What is change management in HR?

Change management is the systematic process of preparing an organization for change in its strategy, processes and/or practices. It often impacts multiple business functions and requires cross-functional collaboration to be successful.

One key business function that very often impacts is the people function. Change management in HR involves preparing the organization and employees for transformation in the people strategy, policies or practices.

HR has an intimate relationship with an organization’s broader change management strategy, as so many developments in the organization require HR’s support and involvement. Because people are at the center of an organization, in effect, HR becomes an agent of change.

Change management as project management

Carrying out the HR function in times of change is a complex process. HR leaders must help steer the organization in a new direction, which requires time, communication, planning and coordination. To provide structure to what can become a chaotic stream of transformation, it’s helpful to see change management through a project management lens.

Change management projects, just like other projects, will require you to establish important project elements such as:

Scope

Establishing the scope of a change management project helps leaders define the extent of the project. It will also help you set appropriate goals.

Ownership

HR, other leaders, managers and employees from across the business have a role to play in change management. At the outset, establishing roles and responsibilities in a way that facilitates collaboration is key to ensuring success.

Goals and objectives

No project is complete without goals and objectives to help steer efforts. Goals, which are longer term, provide the organization with desired outcomes. Objectives, on the other hand, offer checkpoints to help leaders ensure they’re on the right track.

Schedules

Deadlines are extremely important for change management projects. Spending too much time in limbo can cause the organization to fall behind or incur losses over time.

A budget

Budgets for change management projects will vary depending on scale. For example, an HR policy audit will not require nearly as many resources as a full-scale rebrand.

Measurements of success

Agreed upon measurements of success will help leaders and employees understand how the change management strategy is progressing.

Project management strategies also help the organization navigate employee resistance, and in some cases, customer resistance. Resistance is a natural side effect of change management projects, as employees and leaders are generally more comfortable with the status quo.

To prevent resistance from getting in the way of progress, communication from leadership is paramount. Employees, customers and other stakeholders will want to understand:

  • The reason for the change.
  • Its impact on them.
  • How it aligns with the organization’s mission and goals.
  • The organization’s progress.

According to Professor Tracy MacGowan, the key to navigating resistance is to keep perspective.

“Think about how long it takes you (as a person) to make any lasting, significant change in your own life,” she says, “then apply the natural answers to your questions to the challenges you face with present change management projects.”

Keep this in mind when resistance (or the extremely slow pace of change) starts wearing on you as an HR leader. Some lasting changes happen within weeks, some take decades to make — but change is worthwhile nonetheless.

Examples of change management in HR

Organizations are constantly changing in different ways. Some of these changes are so natural to the course of business, they may fly under the radar. However, they’re change nonetheless. The following are common examples of change management in HR:

  • Building a flexible work policy.
  • Onboarding/offboarding C-suite leaders.
  • Launching a new HR software or business-related tool across multiple departments.
  • Navigating changes in legislation and employment law.
  • Hiring and promoting new managers.
  • Managing external workforce factors, like labor shortages or the desire for remote work from applicants.
  • Opening a new office site in a country that is brand new for your business.
  • Undergoing a merger and/or acquisition.

In many cases, HR management teams will support other teams as they navigate their own change. For example, product and marketing leaders will often steer new product or service offerings, but HR will need to ensure the company has the right people in place to successfully implement their go-to-market strategy.

How does HR contribute to change management?

HR’s role in change management depends on the project. Broadly speaking, HR contributes to change management in the organization by building bridges between the organization and its people. As the agent of change, HR will lead the effort to ensure employees, managers and other leaders are aligned and prepared to take on new responsibilities.

Specifically, during times of growth, technological advancement or other change, HR may need to:

  • Hire new talent or conduct layoffs.
  • Lead succession planning.
  • Carry out skills assessments.
  • Create and manage new employee trainings.
  • Adjust or create new policies, employee handbooks and other HR documents.
  • Audit HR key performance indicators.

In some cases, HR also ensures the organization communicates changes consistently and clearly to internal stakeholders. This often depends on the size of the organization and if it has an internal communications department.

Additionally, HR helps obtain buy-in from key stakeholders, including the C-suite, IT and corporate communications. Because change management requires cross-functional collaboration, HR’s ability to build connections with other departments is key.

What are the main principles of change management?

To properly execute change management in HR, you first need to understand the principles of change management. Several approaches to change management principles exist:

Kotter’s Four Principles of Change Management

John Kotter, a Harvard business school professor, developed the following core principles of change management:

  1. Management + Leadership: Change management needs inspiring leaders and effective managers that can move the project forward. That is, to successfully manage change, organizations need project managers to execute the day-to-day work of change management. They also need leadership that motivates employees and other leaders to embrace the change.
  2. Head + Heart: To succeed, change needs to be supported by data and rational decision-making. However, the organization also needs to ensure that its change is inspiring. Here, leaders must be able to communicate the bigger picture and the value the change will bring to employees.
  3. Have to + Want to: Leaders must ensure employees are engaged and invested in the success of the change management project. They will benefit most from employees who feel that their involvement is an opportunity rather than an obligation. That is, employees that want to participate are much more likely to perform better than employees who have to participate in change.
  4. Select few + Diverse many: It’s often a “select few” who bear the majority of the responsibility for implementing change. To ensure smooth transitions and sustainable change, organizations should move away from this. The more stakeholders involved in executing change, the more likely employees are to adopt change in their own work.

The Four C’s of Change Management

Another approach to creating the foundation of your change is the Four C’s of Change Management. The four C’s include:

  1. Clarity: Change management requires clarity. Employees should understand the scope of the change, why it’s happening, who is responsible and how it is progressing. Clarity ensures everyone involved, from employees to the C-suite, understands their roles and responsibilities.
  2. Communication: Transparent communication ensures the change management strategy is executed consistently across stakeholders. It also builds trust and goodwill among the many employees involved in change. Communication should go both ways so that employees know they have a voice in the change management process.
  3. Commitment: Leaders must remain committed to the change to support the vision and mission of the organization’s new future. Without full commitment, organizations run the risk of losing momentum.
  4. Consistency: Consistency and alignment across stakeholders are essential. Consistency ensures practices remain aligned with the organization’s mission and helps employees feel confident taking on new challenges. This is particularly important when the change involves multiple business functions.

The Four P’s of Change Management

The Four P’s of Change Management speak to how leaders should present change to the organization. They include the following:

  1. Purpose: Describe why you are making the change. Organizations that have a clear understanding of why they’re going through change are more likely to feel engaged in and trusting of the process.
  2. Picture: Describe what the future will look like. Help stakeholders visualize where change will lead them. Because change often leads to disruption, it’s important that employees and managers see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  3. Plan: Describe the steps you need to take to get there. Communicating a structured plan reduces anxiety and helps stakeholders begin to understand their roles and responsibilities.
  4. Part: Describe the part you need the specific employee to play. Employees need clarity on what the organization is asking them to do or do differently. Specific requests and guidance will provide direction and clear expectations.

Types of change management methodology

In addition to principles of change, leaders must create a structure for their own change management in HR. The following are well-known types of change management methodologies you might consider using:

Lewin’s 3-step Change Management Model

Kurt Lewin’s 3-step method is simple. The three steps are as follows:

  1. Unfreezing: Prepare the organization for change by analyzing the issue, gaining buy-in and communicating the need for change.
  2. Changing: Implement the change iteratively. This is the bulk of the transition period.
  3. Refreezing: Establish a new status quo and help employees acclimate to the new norm.

The McKinsey 7-S Framework

The Mckinsey 7-S Framework focuses on enabling coordination among stakeholders rather than creating a structure for change. That is, instead of focusing on individual responsibilities, the 7-S model prioritizes how stakeholders work together towards a shared goal.

The model consists of seven internal elements to help leaders analyze an organization’s design.

Diagram of the MicKinsey 7-S Framework, which includes 7 internal elements: style, skills, systems, structure, staff, strategy and shared values.

Kotter’s 8-step Process for Leading Change

John Kotter’s change management process consists of 8 steps. Its structure is straightforward, much like Lewin’s model. Specifically, it includes the following steps:

  1. Create a sense of urgency.
  2. Build a guiding coalition.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Sustain acceleration.
  8. Institute Change.

ADKAR Change Management Model

The ADKAR Change Management Model is unique in that it focuses on an individual person’s journey to change. The term ADKAR is an acronym for the five steps involved:

  • Awareness: The individual must first be aware of the need for change.
  • Desire: Next, they need the desire to participate and support the change.
  • Knowledge: The individual needs to know what to do during and after the change.
  • Ability: The individual must have the ability to realize or implement the change as required.
  • Reinforcement: Reinforcement ensures the results of the change implemented continue.

Nudge Theory

The Nudge Theory focuses on changing the behavior of another person. It posits that you can influence behavior by making suggestions and changing a person’s environment. Over time, instead of pushing or coercing a person to change, these “nudges” will adjust behavior.

Bridges Transition Model

Like the Nudge Theory, the Bridges Transition Model focuses on the human side of change management. It includes three stages that a person experiences during change:

  • Ending what currently is.
  • The neutral zone.
  • The new beginning.

Kübler-Ross Change Curve Model

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve Model, or the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, is a framework used to represent the five stages of grief:

  • Denial.
  • Anger.
  • Bargaining.
  • Depression.
  • Acceptance.

Though generally used in psychology, this framework is also applicable to the employee’s experience of change.

Each of the above methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses. Which method you choose should depend on the organization, the type of change you’re going through and, most importantly, you.

Key factors in getting change to stick in organizations

Several key factors can greatly influence the success of change management in HR:

Leadership commitment

Strong and visible support from top-level HR and other leaders is crucial for successful change implementation. Leaders should actively communicate the need for change, set clear expectations and demonstrate their commitment through actions.

Clear vision and communication

A well-defined vision that outlines the purpose and benefits of the change helps employees understand why it is necessary. Effective communication ensures that everyone is aware of the goals, progress and expected outcomes of the change strategy.

Employee voice

Involving employees in planning and decision-making supports the employee voice and increases commitment to making the change successful. Regular feedback mechanisms, training programs or workshops can all increase employee voice.

Resources and support

Providing adequate resources such as time, budget allocation, technology or training programs enables employees to effectively implement changes without feeling overwhelmed or unsupported.

Agility

Change management strategies often need to adapt to unforeseen hurdles, new information and… well, more change. Organizations can adapt better if they apply agile methods to project management. This includes treating change as an iterative process and evaluating progress frequently.

A final word

Effective change management in HR is crucial for organizations to navigate the ever-evolving business landscape and stay competitive. By understanding the key principles of change management and selecting the right method for the organization, leaders and other stakeholders can turn change into an opportunity for growth and innovation.