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What should we do when all the changes in the company begin to irritate even the most optimistic of colleagues? How to get motivated for the digital transformation.

By Anke Henrich

Ingrid Knigge © privatThe digital transformation is not just a technical challenge, but an emotional one, too. It affects everyone: from R&D and production to human resources, from bosses to trainees. We humans sometimes find it hard to deal with so much change. How can we make it easier on ourselves? Let’s ask a psychologist.

Ingrid Knigge has a degree in Psychology and is a Senior Consultant in Change Management for Buildings & Places at AECOM Germany, where she advises companies on how to design their working environments.

Ms. Knigge, studies have shown that around 80 percent of people, of all ages, are open to change. So why do we find new tasks such hard work?

Because we are having to adapt to new situations ever faster and more often. Sometimes it all gets too much even for those keen to change. Then people typically start to slip into behaviors that we also see in the grieving process. First, we close our eyes to the truth and fall into a hole. After a while, we begin to notice that life still has plenty of good things to offer us, even under changed circumstances.

How can some companies succeed in convincing their teams while others see more stubborn reactions from their staff?

Clever companies motivate their staff by communicating a credible goal and a vision authentically. In others, staff have the impression that the company is acting arbitrarily or only "because everyone else is doing it" and change is forced through. Those companies fail to take the fears that we all have during a major transformation process seriously. A big mistake.

Which fears are those?

For example: Will my skills still be needed in the future? Do I still have control over my job? Does my work still make sense? What will my colleagues think of me if I go along with it, or if I refuse? We see these same questions at every level of a hierarchy, just like the desire to be valued and appreciated. A company that leaves its staff to deal with them alone will always see productivity fall.

Surely agile working also has a lot of advantages, such as greater appreciation in new teams, more opportunities to lead teams, and more freedom than in old, rigid structures?

Definitely. It is good to be aware of this early on in the change process and to be proactive in looking for your own opportunities, instead of simply waiting to see what happens. The earlier we get involved, the more of a feeling of self-determination we have and the greater the opportunities to actively influence our future field of work within the new constraints.

Unlike in the past, skills now often trump seniority when it comes to how leadership roles are distributed. Sometimes there are complaints about young whippersnappers wanting to tell older, more experienced staff what to do. How can this kind of tension be avoided?

The best way is for the new boss' manager to talk to him openly about the issue and potential solutions, instead of ignoring the elephant in the room. The same goes for the entire team. Diplomatic discussions help everyone involved.

In large corporations in particular, staff sometimes view the digital transformation as a sort of hostile takeover, with entire leadership teams being replaced. What should someone do if they notice that they themselves are being a little resistant to change?

This is a very human reaction. After all, at first glance, the transformation looks like a lack of appreciation for the work the division or department has done in the past. To stop yourself and your thoughts getting trapped in a downward spiral, I recommend this: Beware of the grapevine! Find out the facts and talk to someone you trust and who is well-informed, or to the works council. And, as I said, look for the opportunities for you personally.

How can colleagues or team leaders deal with someone who flatly refuses to engage? Research shows that ten percent of staff are extremely difficult or even impossible to convince.

Talk to that person about his objections in private, not in front of other people. Never dismiss his criticism out of hand! You should try to find out what is really behind his reservations. Perhaps it is fear, which can be assuaged. This shows the colleague that he is still important. But I would also advise against giving too much attention to constant moaners - otherwise you could end up with endless conflict. You cannot convince everybody. That is just life.

You have a great deal of experience with change in a huge range of sectors. How can you tell when the process is going off the rails?

There are very obvious parameters. If even the staff who volunteer to become involved as internal multipliers begin to withdraw, or if absences and resignations begin to rise. Another critical point is when a company begins to see a two-tier society - digital against analog - or the first people involved in upper management begin to jump ship. Any manager should also hear alarm bells ringing if even the team intended to drive change management forward begins to disintegrate and each person only focuses on their own things.

What went so badly wrong there?

The pain points of everyone involved are often only analyzed at the very beginning. They are then forgotten at some point during the long process, so that the process becomes less credible and persuasive. Many companies also plan and execute the digital project with just one date in mind - when it is finally implemented. But a project like this is like a marriage: The wedding day is not the end of the hard work, but only the beginning.

Further Information

VDMAimpulse 03-2018 "We have to prepared to lose people"   |   VDMAimpulse 02-2019 "Engineers 4.0 - The digital Swiss army knife"   |   VDMAimpulse 02-2019 "Disruptive thinking instead of cramming"