Don't Go Changing

Know Your Limits

The first step in effectively limiting change is to know when you're experiencing too much. It's impossible to stay in business without changing at all, so how do you know when you're changing too much? There are several signs of excessive change.

The most important one comes from employees. Any time they don't seem to know the company's objective, suspect that change has outpaced the human ability to adjust. "When there's a feeling among employees that there's no core direction or principles from which they can operate, that's a real danger sign," Barrett says.

Of course, it's not always easy to discern employees' inner states. But you can look at objectively measurable traits such as trends in absenteeism, employee turnover and error rates to help reveal a work force overstressed by change. In a small business, you may notice employees taking longer lunches or spending more time on personal phone calls, says Katz. "You're seeing overwhelmed people who are trying to give themselves some space," he says.

When employees need space, you can either give it to them the way you want them to have it, or they will make it for themselves, Katz notes. The most basic way to guide change-stressed employees toward effective management of stress is to declare a hiatus on change as the Fed did. "Slow down," advises Katz. "Let things stand for a while. Give everyone a chance to catch their breath."

It may be a good idea to provide employees with more training, which will allow a breather while straightening the learning curve. The discomfort and pressure of learning a new, required skill is a basic cause of change-related stress. "When you change something," Katz notes, "all those people who were competent at something a week ago are now bad at it. So they don't feel good about themselves."

If taking a break is not an option, you can attempt to alter everyone's perspective on change. For instance, if employees are feeling crushed by pressure to master new skills, officially proclaim that the company is in a learning mode. Doing so will reduce some of the pressure to perform perfectly in an unfamiliar environment. "Being a student gives people permission to make mistakes," Katz observes.

If you opt for a break, it doesn't have to be a long one. Huntsman believes even a very small step back from the hurly-burly pace of e-mail- and fax-driven business communications can help. "One of the ways we try to manage change," he says, "is to just let somebody sit down and think about something for five minutes."

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Don't Go Changing.

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