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Adapting to Organizational Changes

Adapting to Organizational Changes

Tips to help staff navigate the changes that impact them

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Change is one of the constants of life. All organizations experience change, some large and some small. Some changes bring benefits to the lab, and other changes feel negative, like something has been lost. Independent of how positive or negative the change is, most staff have a tendency to resist change because it disrupts the habits and patterns of the lab, and causes them to be uncomfortable and uncertain in the new situation. 

Lab managers can help staff to navigate change in more positive ways. The keys to accomplish this are to understand the change as fully as possible, process your own feelings about the change, find the positive elements of the change, communicate clearly, and be supportive of staff as they navigate how the change affects them.

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Understand why

When change is brought to the lab from the broader organization, it is vital that the lab manager explores the changes and seeks to fully understand the details of the change. We can take our cue from Simon Sinek and start with why. To explain the rationale for the change to staff, lab leaders need to understand why the change was implemented. Lab staff will expect management to be able to articulate the reasons behind the change, what motivated the organization to make the change, and what the expected benefits of the change are. To fully understand the change, lab managers need to have conversations with organizational executives who can help explain why the change is being made. To get the most from these conversations, it is helpful to prepare key questions that explore the motivation behind the change, the manager’s role in implementing the change, the expectations of the organization on the lab, and the intended benefits to be derived from the change. It is also possible that line management won’t have all of these answers, especially if the change originates from farther above. It may take a few conversations to get the needed information.

Once the why is understood, it’s time to fully understand the what, how, and when of the change. It is important to understand exactly what is expected of your lab, what resources (if any) you will receive to help facilitate the change, and when the change is expected to be fully implemented. This is a good time to pressure test with line management their assumptions about what is expected from the lab and to help manage expectations around any problems or assumptions.

Process our emotions

Once the impending change is fully understood, it is wise to take some time to fully process your emotions about the changes. Even if you expect the change to bring benefits, managing change can be difficult and time consuming. It is important to find your own equilibrium before communicating the change with your staff. If you feel the change is negative, or it impacts you in a direct way, it is even more important that you process any negative feelings before speaking with staff. Your staff will need you to help them process any negative emotions, and that is very difficult to do if you are still in the midst of your own doubts and fears. Dealing with your own emotions first will also help you be more authentic. You can share how you dealt with the negative feelings, rather than simply hide them to process later.

Find the benefits

In any change, there are benefits. They may be small and difficult to find, but those benefits are there. As the lab manager, it is your responsibility to find, identify, and communicate what good will come from the effort to change. Hopefully, the benefits will be clear to all, but some changes feel pretty negative, which requires more effort to find the silver lining to communicate.

Once some benefits are identified, create a few “so that” statements to help with communication to staff. A so that statement will connect the actions required in the change with the benefits coming from the change. An example of a so that statement is something like, “we’ll go through the effort to be outsourced from the parent organization, so that we’ll have more control of our budget and our future.” Connecting the immediate actions to a future benefit helps staff to understand why you’re asking them to be uncomfortable during the change.

Communicate clearly

Create clear and transparent communication around the change for staff. Ensure that the message is clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete, and courteous. Share what you’ve learned about the motivation, benefits, and details of the upcoming change. Be direct with the language so that staff are clear about the message, but also include elements of kindness and positive communication, so that staff know you are considering them as you announce the change. Demonstrate your caring for the staff in this first communication. Help staff to understand the change, especially the why, and use the so that statements to connect the expectations of the change to the intended benefits.

The communication around the change will need to occur through multiple channels. You should expect to communicate in group settings (live or through a digital media like Zoom), email, and one-on-one discussions. Each of these communications serve a purpose. The group setting helps everyone to hear the same message at the same time. Email helps document the details and provides a written communication that people can review and refer to as needed. One-on-one communication provides the opportunity to answer more personal questions and enables you to demonstrate caring and empathy to the people as individuals. 

During these communication sessions, encourage staff to ask questions. Their questions will help you identify the sticking points, surface issues that you may not have considered, and show you where more attention is needed to make the change successful. Don’t worry about facing questions for which you don’t have answers. If you need to go learn more, take the time needed, find the answers, and bring the new information back to staff.

Follow through

Once the change has been communicated and begins to occur, it is vital that you monitor the change process. Just hearing the desired change from you is insufficient. You can’t declare victory until the change is complete. Talk to the people in the lab about the change as you do management by walking around. Help identify where the change is going well, and where it needs a little more help from you. It might also be important to remove items from the lab that were used in the old system, so that the old ways can no longer be done and staff need to move forward with the change to deliver their responsibilities. If there are pockets of resistance to the change in the lab, it is a good practice to focus on the folks who are on the fence about the change. Once they come over to the change side, they will help you bring the more active resisters onboard with the change.

Change can be difficult, especially when the change is thrust upon you from higher in the organization. By understanding the change, especially the motivation for it; finding the benefits, no matter how small; and communicating that change effectively to staff; you can help your lab navigate these kinds of changes successfully. Becoming a good change leader will help your staff come through the inevitable changes with less disruption and greater confidence.