Less choice, greater challenge
Amalgamation is challenging enough when it is initiated by Local Government. When it is not necessarily by choice, Local Governments face a double whammy. Research suggests that readiness for change, where employees are prepared for and understand the benefits of change, is the first step in effecting successful change. But how do you get the “thumbs up” from staff when the change may not be fully supported at the community or leadership level?
A recent study I undertook helps to shine a light on this question. This was featured in Statewide Magazine recently (Local Government Managers Australia WA Issue No 156 2013). My research took place during a period where two Perth metropolitan local governments were considering a merger (‘Local government reform in Western Australia: A case study on change readiness’, supervised by Professor NJ Pearse, Rhodes Business School, Rhodes University, South Africa).
The five dimensions of change readiness are here to help!
I used five dimensions to explore their change readiness: discrepancy, appropriateness, efficacy, valence and principal support*.
Discrepancy: In order to be ready to support change, employees need to believe that change is required to close the gap between the current state and a preferred future state.
Appropriateness: Employees also need to understand why the specific change strategy is the best way to address the discrepancy.
Efficacy: Unless employees have confidence in the organisation and themselves to successfully change, they will tend to bury their head in the sand.
Valence: This term refers to the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. Employees need to know that the change will leave them no worse off, that they will be treated fairly and that there will be personal benefits. People understandably resist change that threatens their self-interest.
Principal Support: Visible leadership support is essential. Employees need to see consistent evidence that their leaders are committed to the change.
I will explore each of these in more depth in future posts.
Meeting the challenge with the five dimensions of change readiness
While the context for structural reform at the State Government level was well known, most of the managers in my study identified some positive impacts for the community. Potential benefits included opportunities for greater efficiency, a broader rates base, increased and improved levels of service, improved asset management, an enhanced ability to attract and retain staff and standardised regulations across neighbouring areas.
On the other hand, a key concern was the perceived likelihood of reduced contact and less personal service:
…with these smaller councils there is quite a personal connection…it is almost like a village attitude which you are going to lose…
On balance, the discrepancy and appropriateness dimensions were fulfilled sufficiently to provide a basis for an open-minded investigation of the merger proposal. There did not appear to be a lack of confidence in the organisation or themselves to undertake change.
In terms of the valence dimension, many of the managers’ concerns centred around the impact on their work environment and the potential impacts on their future in the organisation. Concern was raised about change in organisational culture, possible redundancies and the potential for losing staff in the climate of uncertainty.
It is difficult to address such concerns in a merger situation where redundancies are possible. This makes it all the more important to focus on open communication, fair process and a commitment to maximising opportunities for staff.
The managers in my study particularly highlighted the need for ongoing, open, honest communication.
The biggest thing in the process is communicating what’s happening…just so you know exactly where, what’s expected of you…that will definitely make you more comfortable…
Last but by no means least, principal support remains vital even when the Local Governments are responding to an external driver. Leaders can still define the best possible outcome and visibly strive to achieve it.
Senior management need to walk the talk…and make sure they are inspiring confidence.
When staff need to know the what, why, how and personal impact of change, deferring to the actions of another authority will only undermine their chance to positively engage. Getting the thumbs up is more challenging in such circumstances but focusing on these five dimensions can help to create an environment for successful change.
* Armenakis, A.A. and Harris, S.G., 2002. Crafting a change message to create transformational readiness. Journal of Organizational Change Management. 15, 2:169-183.