How to beat fear and loathing of IT change

Your team's success depends on your ability to manage the anxieties, doubts, and fears that can lead to resistance amid change. Apply this expert advice, IT leaders
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Want to see human beings start to act, well, human? Just tell them a major change is coming, and watch the emotions bubble to the surface. Ignore that simmering stew of fear, anxiety, and doubt at your own risk: Before you know it, it’ll be at a rolling boil.

In IT, this often occurs during major initiatives or projects. Whether that’s a massive application replacement, a major cloud migration, an organizational shift from a traditional IT culture to DevOps, or any other significant initiative, there will be friction along the way – much of it born from natural responses like fear and anxiety. After all, IT pros are human too.

“These changes often represent threats to our basic needs – our jobs, work communities, and sense of stability,” says Alan Zucker, founder of Project Management Essentials.

[ How can you help your team pick up the pace on transformation? See our related article, Transformational leadership: 8 ways to keep teams moving. ]

Are IT pros more prone to this kind of fear than other folks? Nah. Fear of change transcends job titles, departments, and other variables.

“Fundamentally, doubt and anxiety around IT initiatives are no different from other kinds of change management issues,” says Joshua Peskay, VP of technology at RoundTable Technology.

That said, change itself might be more intrinsically woven into the fabric of IT, in large part because of the always-evolving nature of technology itself. And we’re probably not doing a good enough job of recognizing that reality and taking steps to lead change accordingly.

“Many organizations fail to achieve the planned outcomes from their change initiatives because they have unrealistic expectations and timelines, and they do not properly or adequately communicate the change,” Zucker says.

As an IT leader, you know that the success of your major IT programs and projects depends in part on your ability to manage anxieties, doubts, and fears that can lead to resistance and naysaying. Here’s some expert advice on how to handle this challenge.

Don’t hide behind the curtain: Be transparent

This is particularly important when managing changes that will in fact affect people’s jobs, including job losses or other material changes to an employee’s position. Don’t massage or obscure the truth. Be visible and be honest – otherwise, you’ll do irreparable harm to your credibility and your team’s ability to trust future changes.

“[Employees] can spot malarkey a mile away," Zucker says. “Explain the real reasons for the change. It may be unpleasant, but at least people will know you are being honest.”

Jamshid Rezaei, CIO of Mitel, knows a little bit about leading change: He’s been a part of more than 20 mergers, acquisitions, and similar deals that fundamentally require changes, including the integration of two discrete IT departments and their people, infrastructure, applications, and more.

Mitel recently acquired ShoreTel, another unified communications provider. In leading any change – especially something like a merger or acquisition that will inherently impact some people – Rezaei says the CIO and leadership team must be visible and accessible.

“Be transparent, be honest, be upfront [with people],” Rezaei advises. “Communication is key. That’s really it.”

Make your message consistent

“People will hear different pieces of the message each time it is communicated.”

Communication for the sake of it won’t help alleviate people’s concerns, and might actually make things worse. Instead, deliver the right message. Rezaei points out that your communication needs to be consistent, which means ensuring you’re not sending mixed signals or a message that’s not aligned with other senior executives and leaders.

It also means communicating continuously. Don’t hold a single all-hands meeting and assume “problem solved!” That’s not leadership.

Zucker advises communicating openly and continuously during any phase of significant change. “People will hear different pieces of the message each time it is communicated,” he says. “Repeating the message many times and many ways ensures that it is heard.”

Emphasize why, how, and what

Peskay recommends structuring your communications and change management around why, how, and what – in that specific order. Here’s how he breaks down these three related steps:

  • WHY: “Staff needs to understand why the change is needed and the consequences of NOT changing.”
  • HOW: “This is [the specifics of] how the change will be made in the organization.”
  • WHAT: “This shows the benefits of the desired state when achieved: How this change can help the organization and individuals.”

Culture change takes longer than project timelines

Don’t assume that change management ends on the same timeline as the project or initiative that created that change in the first place. Real change, especially cultural change, takes time.

And this is where many organizations and leaders drop the ball, according to Zucker. The leadership team simply isn’t allowing enough time for people to process, understand, and socialize significant change into their day-to-day jobs and the company’s culture.

“Executives often think change will be instantaneous – it is announced one day and in place the next,” Zucker says. “People need time to adjust. They need to put the strategic change into the context of their role in the organization.”

Listen – really listen

Part of that impatience can stem from not understanding how change actually unfolds in the trenches and impacts the day-to-day operations of any organization. This is especially crucial in IT, which is often asked to keep business running as usual, even as that business is significantly changed in some way.

“Listen to your employees – [they] understand the business and operations at an intimate level of detail,” Zucker says. “They may voice concerns that were not previously considered. They may have ideas that amplify the value of the change initiative.”

Remember, change and chaos aren’t the same thing

We often point out that change, especially in the business world, is constant. There’s some truth in that, but don’t use it as a crutch to support non-stop change that has no big-picture purpose. That’s chaos, not productive change, and it will undermine you and your team.

“Organizations that are constantly in flux never have the opportunity to develop high-performing teams, because the team is constantly adjusting and readjusting to change,” Zucker says. “Give the change time to yield the intended results.”

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.