The Toxicity of Change

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Change agent is not something I would have ever considered putting on my resume. 

Change is a really tough assignment. It’s not like other projects. Pretty much everyone is resistant to it at first. 

The typical scenario goes something like this.

Management often drafts a strategic plan. These are often designed to occur over the next 3 to 5 years. 

The plan is shared with staff. Most everyone makes an immediate judgement. They decide this is either good or bad. 

Management then hires staff to fulfill the strategic plan. 

The new staff begins by looking at inefficiencies and roadblocks to establishing the strategic plan. 

They often take away something to start. Perhaps a process or something that is low profit. They remove redundancy and strip everything down to the essentials. 

For most people in a work environment, this stage is exciting. Especially for those who recognize the futility of low-profit work and redundancies. 

But there are always a few people who immediately resist this stage. They are often those who helped build the current workflow. Sometimes they are people who find some value in the redundancies. Perhaps their learning style benefits from repetition. 

They can significantly slow a project based on how vocal they are about the changes. 

Toxicity can begin to build up around people who feel like their entire system has been removed, thereby removing their value to the company. 

It’s important for managers to create new value by recognizing the potential of its employees as well as recognizing their versatility. Most everyone is versatile enough to move around in an organization. Sometimes, though, an employ just cannot deal with the fact that their way of life has been changed so significantly. 

A wise, old manager once told me that at this point you begin a process he calls “career counseling.” These employs are encouraged to find a better-fitting job, and they are given time to do that. This strategy often works great when a smooth transition is desired. This old manager usually gave someone 30 to 90 days to find a desired job, after which their employment would end. He would often provide job search services as well references. 

The second stage of change comes when the new staff begin to build the new system. This often involves technology, which often involves a steep learning curve. 

It takes time to learn a new system. Some employs, especially those who are process oriented, will often learn the new system much faster than the rest. 

This sometimes gives the appearance that the system is easier to learn than it really is. People in creative fields and non-process oriented jobs can fall behind the rest, which can cause resentment and frustration to build. 

There is potential at this stage for toxicity to build to high levels. 

I have found that these are the perfect times to try to put everyone on the same playing field. All-staff trainings, workgroups and peer tutoring sessions can reduce the toxicity quickly, allowing change agents to fully implement the new systems. 

In dynamic environments, like newsrooms, systems are often tried and changed quickly to allow for adjustments that don’t hinder the news-gathering process. 

These are important, because quality is often the goal in newsrooms, and when anyone feels the quality begins to change too much, it reduces the value they feel in their job. 

Failure to make these adjustments will cause toxicity to build. 

At this point, you are managing expectations and technological systems while trying to adjust for increasing visibility as the new systems serve up content more efficiently. 

This is the point at which you will be stretched very, very thin. Communication can break down at this point, because the change agent is often holding too many strings. 

The goal at this point is to empower other managers to take the strings and follow the strategic plan using their own resources. The desired effect is that it all feeds back efficiently into the system, which is optimized to serve up the product in the best way possible. 

If you cannot empower other managers at this point, toxicity will build, because the change agent is unavailable due to multiple responsibilities. 

This can be a volatile time where all stakeholders question the veracity of the system or even the strategic plan as a whole. 

This is a great time for senior management to step in an reiterate the strategic plan and affirm the process. 

There is always some level of toxicity in the work environment. We are all inured to it a little bit. But when toxicity levels rise to the point where they impact performance or buy-in, it must be dealt with. If it has gone on too long, unravelling the complexities of it can be terrifying. 

And that brings me to the point of this post. Toxicity exists as a base-level ingredient in community. In its most basic form, it’s like human emotion. It’s a reaction to circumstances. 

It’s an odorless gas that permeates an organization. It feeds off of human emotions and grows proportionately to discontent. 

Change, especially massive changes that completely sweep an industry like the media, seems to directly lead to huge increases in toxicity. Communication breakdowns, systemic failures, changes in leadership and the basic makeup of organizations are all fundamentally involved. But changing one of them only pushes the toxicity to another part of the organization. It doesn’t do anything to reduce it. 

Achieving buy-in but failing to set expectations will create an instant increase in toxicity. 

Stagnation is a huge roadblock to fulfilling a strategic plan. Stagnation as a result of budget overruns, stagnation as a result of high toxicity and low creativity and stagnation as a result of sweeping technological change all presents a huge conundrum for change agents. 

It’s like a car breaking down in the desert. Your only choice is often to simply push the heavy load to the nearest workshop. 

At this point, toxicity is so high, your riders may begin to bail, opting to walk or catch a ride in a passing car. 

Sometimes the lighter load will get the vehicle moving again, so this is not always a bad thing. More often than not, the riders stay along for the ride, but they cease pushing because they have a lack of motivation. 

Change is difficult under the most optimal circumstances. For the last 10,000 years, change has occurred slowly. So slowly, in fact, it’s like watching a glacier melt. 

Toxicity doesn’t have as much opportunity to build up when change occurs slowly. 

But today, change occurs on a pace that humans can no longer keep up with. Computers able to make billions of calculations in seconds dictate the speed at which change occurs. 

Sure, computers are not imaginative nor creative. Yet. But they will be. And already they can calculate things in seconds that would take humans years to calculate. 

That means that change will only occur more rapidly in the near future, as new technology quickly replaces older technology. New systems will have to be devised over shorter and shorter time spans. 

And yet we don’t have a clear way to keep the toxicity at bay. The faster the change, the more toxic the environment. Our children are ever more adaptive to change. They are able to respond faster and with less toxicity. 

But the current workplace is full of diversity, especially in age groups. There are currently three generations occupying the workplace. The Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials. 

Only the Millennials have the capacity to handle the kind of changes about to take place. Both Baby Boomers and Generation Xers will be severely tested by the changes, and they will only increase the toxicity in the workplace. 

There are no easy answers here. However, I see many references today to changing up the management structure of American companies. Putting Millennials in key leadership positions, especially in positions that need to deal with a lot of toxicity, could alleviate the fallout from so much change. 

Restructuring work environments periodically keeps the workforce more resilient and amenable to change. Fostering a culture of knowledge, especially about the technological changes on the horizon, can help establish better expectations. 

And gaining horizontal buy-in before starting in to a strategic plan might just ensure an all-hands-on-deck approach that could foster more change and less toxic build up. 

Change is now the constant. Evolution has to either speed up, or we face the real specter of extinction. Perhaps not the human race, but of ideas and thoughts that are so crucial to existence. 

– Tim Akimoff

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