Timing Matters in Managing Change


to the change.

A related timing issue concerns the optimal time to tell employees about a change they'll find distressing. Sometimes, of course, you're forced to sit on the information until you're given the go ahead from above to share it, such as when its premature disclosure could send customers straight to the competition. Too often, however, managers who know about a potentially upsetting change refrain from informing employees because they want to spare these employees any unnecessary pain-or at least that's what these managers tell themselves. Actually, many managers withhold bad news to spare themselves any unnecessary pain-in particular, the pain of dealing with employees' reactions.

In any case, withholding information about an upcoming change in the name of kindness usually backfires, because it amounts to treating adults like children. From the employees' perspective, such withholding is dishonest, thoughtless, and inconsiderate. And, a manager withholding bad news because he never thought that the information would matter to others (as I've encountered in a few companies) is an outrageous sign of disrespect.

Of course, it's natural to want to withhold bad news. But most people would prefer to hear bad news sooner rather than later if it will affect their ability to do their jobs properly, and this is as true of customers as the software professionals who serve them. More than a few customers I've interviewed while consulting to IT organizations have mentioned their frustration over not being kept informed about changes in IT's ability to deliver as agreed. As vociferously stated by one such customer, "IT needs to understand that we have responsibilities and accountabilities just as they do. We need to know what's happening so we can make adjustments at our end."

An interesting ethical aspect of this issue surfaced during my presentation on managing change at a recent software conference. One member of the audience questioned whether it's not only dishonest, but also unethical, for a manager to refrain from giving employees news that affects them and that she's free to disclose. In a lively exchange, audience members debated the issue. When I then polled the group, the majority felt that the ethical thing to do, almost always, is to disclose the information, even it means contending with the resulting reactions. This is certainly easier to agree with than to do in practice, but I like to think that managers will give this issue serious consideration when the situation arises.

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