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How to Get People Through Change Faster (and with Less Angst)

By Mike Hourigan, CEO & leadership consultant, Hourigan & Associates (and featured speaker at the 2019 Women in Agribusiness Summit) (April 13, 2020) It is not that managing change is a new concept, it is that we all live in a time when the rate of change seems to be increasing at an ever-expanding pace.

I might add that two factors contributing to “the rate” include the fact that courtesy of the online world, we often work on an international and collaborative basis where teams must pull together across all types of platforms. To get most anything done, we are often forced to give up concepts such as “this is my project,” or (gasp) “my research.” The second factor is that we are rarely given the opportunity to reflect, and to opine or even lobby, for what we are losing. In brief, we are often forced to give up territory in addition to a sense of security, competence and even our working relationships. Nothing is Easy about Change

Change can be forced on us through any number of circumstances including mergers, acquisitions, new management teams, new technologies, protocols and equipment, and new product lines (or conversely, the failure of an existing product line). The list I present is hardly exhaustive. To make facing change even more difficult is that it is rarely one item; it can be any number of items simultaneously clashing, falling apart, needing fixes and becoming “our top priority.” This leads me to an unpleasant given about change: people don’t fear change per se, but what change will do to them. Make no mistake, a major change may affect all aspects of a multi-billion-dollar agribusiness organization but to each one of those thousand or twenty-thousand employees, the change is highly personal – and frightening. The angst is remarkably as similar in London or Paris as it is in Iowa City or Mexico City. The Process The process of getting people through change can be subdivided into four steps: · Denial · Resistance · Exploration · Commitment While I will go through these steps with you, I know all too well that organizations, like their people, slip and fall, and stumble and make mistakes. I have yet to see a sweeping set of changes unfold without flaws. In some ways, it is a cause for celebration. We’re human! Working through a problem can bring us together. I should also emphasize that “angst” with change is not linked to education – or a lack of it. We are typically affected in similar ways, and like it or not, the Ph.D. in Biochemistry is every bit as likely to resist change as the mechanic repairing equipment in the test farm shed. Nevertheless, we must overcome the challenges and shine. Therefore, executives in agribusiness should embrace the steps and convey that we, all of us, can be successful if we understand that angst is a part of life, and that with change comes greater opportunity and growth. Denial The CEO calls for a meeting. She strides to the podium, adjusts the microphone, and announces a major change. Instead of hearing a collective groan or ducking tomatoes, she instead witnesses a sea of blank faces. Why would this be? It is denial. They are processing. In turn, she conveys to her management across the country and around the globe that they must explain the changes to their units or teams or however the organization is configured. The denial step can be sped up if everyone remembers the following: · Provide as much information as possible. Understand that the days of “it’s on a need-to-know basis” have passed us by. Transparency (within reason) will go a long way to helping ease the shock. On this point, appreciate as well that the person repairing that tractor may indeed have superior computer skills to the Ph.D. She could very well find the reasons for change ahead of many executives. · Confront fears gently and with kindness. Change carries a certain amount of emotional trauma. Respond to fears with your heart. · Convey the benefits of this change. Why was this done? Why was it necessary? · Involve as many people as possible in the process of what is to come. Inclusion is powerful. · Of course, we should honor the past and those who have come before. Acknowledge that those who came before also experienced change. They would understand. · Reinforce and remind that we are all going forward with the changes; that the change is not an option. It WILL happen.

Resistance Expect resistance to change, but don’t let it cripple the process. This is where the angst starts to set in, but one of the keys to managing change is to celebrate! Celebrate what is to come and pass along that enthusiasm to everyone in your organization. The reason we are celebrating is that people now have no choice but to work together to make it happen; they are creating a personal thought process where they are understanding that the denial phase is truly over. · This is not time for “let’s make a deal.” If an employee begrudgingly acquiesces to accepting change and then asks questions such as “Do you think the changes will enable me to take this course or that? Will I get better medical benefits?” Be honest. If you don’t know, never make promises you can’t keep. · In any organization undergoing change, you will have early adopters and innovators who share the vision for the changed organization. Focus on them first. · Not to confuse the issue, but of the early adopters will have an even more engaged group that I call early adapters. Early adapters are the ones who can make the process easier or find a way to eliminate redundant steps. They may seem resistant at first, but their feedback may ultimately ease the entire process. · Be strong. Don’t let anyone fail. Support and help them and assure them you will be there for them. Do everything you can to make them successful. · The key to overcoming the resistance for change is to LISTEN and in turn, to give positive feedback.

Exploration The exploration step of change management is the critical step. Here is where every executive must move on from explanation and dive into action. This step requires: · Establishing priorities, a self-evident, but it requires great thought. To that end, brainstorming with teams is essential. Engage as many people as possible. · What are your training needs? What tools must you give employees to ensure that the changes you propose can be executed by those who are properly trained to make them? · What do you see as short-term goals? Take everything in small steps, change units, as I call them, but have a firm plan. · The key to creating a strong team is as much symbolic as it is actual. Symbols such as t-shirts, hats or even coffee mugs can be powerful. Reminder: this is fun part, please let them be the decision-makers here. Whether they work together to create logo ideas or design a polo shirt, let them do it – please don’t take it away from them. Commit to Change – Don’t Just Talk About it!

This is where everyone needs to get on the bandwagon. Tell everyone in the organization what it is you want them to commit to in the days, weeks and months ahead. Be precise and certain in that mission. · Training is essential. If change is about to take place, and certain employees must get help with anything from new software to new safety equipment, make sure they are trained. · Nothing beats positive feedback, but it is especially important in instituting change. Always recognize and reward those enthusiastic adopters who are helping you to make a difference. · Set your long-term goals. Be determined to meet the future. · Concentrate on team building. I am afraid to say that there will be a percentage of employees who may not have moved beyond the resistance phase. They may be refusing to manage the changes that need to be made. Eventually, they may be inappropriate candidates for the future direction of the company. To say that the agribusiness industry is huge is an understatement. Change is to be expected, not to be considered an exception. While change may present difficulties, angst should not be a pervading emotion. The future is as bright as we allow it to be. We should never give in to despair or negativity nor to allow others to lead us in those directions. We move forward and succeed as a team. It is empowering and comforting to see people moving in unison toward an exciting and new goal. ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Hourigan is an author, speaker and consultant known for the satirical, real-world wisdom he brings to his audiences. His original material draws from his international education, early blue-collar jobs, and executive positions with Cargill Inc. and Olympus Corp. Since his first demonstration with 4-H, he has enjoyed sharing practical solutions with audiences. Hourigan has worked with some of the country’s most successful organizations including Marriott, Bayer, Novartis, General Mills, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol Meyers Squibb, Disney, GE, Harley-Davidson, MillerCoors and AgChoice Farm Credit.

He is co-author of Riding the Waves Without Getting Wet, and Motivational Selling, and was a featured speaker at the 2019 Women in Agribusiness Summit where he presented “Don’t Split the Difference: Negotiation Skills for Professionals”. Hourigan can be reached at


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