Overcoming staff resistance to firm changes

Kevin Cheung on how small-to-mid-sized firms can implement change effectively

Overcoming staff resistance to firm changes
Kevin Cheung

It is a reality that a law firm – like any business – changes over time.

Some changes are large (merger and acquisition) and some are small (a minor process update). Because employees are the backbone of any business, the successful implementation of a change depends largely on how they adopt and adapt to the change. Unfortunately, studies have found that a majority of change initiatives fail due to employee resistance.

Successful change requires skillful management of staff to help them navigate through the process. Smaller and mid-sized firms can be nimbler at this because there is a more direct relationship between each employee and firm leaders. This allows the purveyors of change to have more involvement in the front-line adoption of an initiative. In larger organizations with thousands of employees, this is simply not possible.

Types of change

Changes to a firm can generally be categorized as follows:

Evolution: A change that builds on existing processes and procedures (improving a docketing system or updating emergency preparedness).

Transition: Moving the firm from the status quo to a new state (going paperless or adopting a new practicing management software).

Transformation: A fundamental change to the operation of the firm (adding new practice areas).

Change management

Change management is an approach to navigating change initiatives. It recognizes that change has two sides – the fact of the change itself and the human side of the change (how employees are affected by the change). The latter is the focus of change management. The goal of change management is to plan for the human aspect of changes to the business in order to increase the likelihood that the initiative will succeed.

Much of the literature written about change management is geared towards larger organizations. However, the underlying principles can serve as guidelines for smaller businesses.

Change management, by its very nature, is a top-down exercise. It can be outlined as follows:

Starting at the top: The leaders of the organization put forward a change initiative. Key at this level is that the firm leaders be fully invested in the initiative. If there is resistance or ambivalence at the top, this will trickle down to staff.

Working your way down: the change plan is relayed down through different levels of management, and ultimately to front line employees. The aim is to ensure that the change plan, at each level, is understood, embraced and implemented.

Reinforcing: regular communication, monitoring key performance metrics, and incentivizing achievements to ensure that the change is long lasting.

So how can law firm leaders incorporate elements of change management into their initiatives?

Demonstrate your investment and belief in the change; effectively communicate its reason and purpose; make yourself available to anybody who wants to talk about the change or is struggling with it; take time to understand the core reasons for resistance; have regular meetings to monitor the progress and challenges; communicate the impact and tangible results of the change and create opportunities for staff to benefit from the change.

The only constant in life is change. In business, changes should be deliberate strategic maneuvers to better the organization. Learning to effectively manage the rollout of a change in your firm will maximize the purpose and chance of the success of the change.

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