ASK THE OD DOCTORS: How early do we announce impending drastic change initiatives in organisations?

Reflections and thoughts by Dr. Lily Cheng

Chief Executive Officer

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How early do we announce impending drastic change initiatives in organisations? How can we then dissolve resistance to change?

While pursuing my PhD titled titled Enablers that positively impact successful implementation of organisational change from the perspectives of OD practitioners, one of the most unforgettable interviews I did for my thesis was with Stephen from Stanford Pharmaceuticals Singapore (pseudo names are used for confidentiality). 

He was one of the earliest employees and had grown with the organisation for over 20 years. The business then was "very rosy" and “profitable”, and the owners even announced that they still wanted to continue to grow the business. So it came as a SHOCK in the following month, when it was announced that a conglomerate was going to acquire the organisation that Stephen was working for.

In his words:  “I wasn’t expecting it because the company was doing very well. Even just before the sale, the owners were still saying a lot of things; that we will continue to expand, continue to do what we do best. There wasn’t much indication about them thinking of calling it a day and selling it away.”

He described feelings of betrayal and believed that it was also reflective of how other employees  felt. The news created a lot of mixed feelings - surprise, shock, uncertainty, anxiety and fear, of what is to come.

In most of my years of work with MNCs, this is the norm with how change is announced - through SHOCK waves. Should we not be humanly sensible and also sensitive, before we set out to “shake things up” in our organisations? This will help to create a better context in which change is to happen.


From both proactive and reactive viewpoints, there are various ways that leaders can try to dissolve or reduce resistance throughout the organisational change journey: 

1.    Understand the employees' perspective. Simply ask them how they feel directly; never through a second-hand informer.

2.    Set the stage for change. Leaders must involve employees and encourage them to jointly and proactively question business challenges and assumptions, to reinvent the business to maintain a competitive advantage.

3.    Monitor employees’ perceptions throughout the change. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."" Leaders must not suffer this illusion. They need to put in place employee feedback systems to gather immediate feedback after the delivery of important change messages, by asking the following questions:  

•    In your opinion, what are the most important points in the change message that we have just shared?

•    What are the points in the change message that you did not understand?

•    What are the points in the change message that you agree with?

•    What are the points in the change message that you disagree with?

•    What else do you need to know in this change journey?

4.    Make it a point to give honest answers to tough questions. Employees want their employers to give them honest information that will allow them to make informed choices about their jobs, careers and futures in a change journey.  If you do not have the information, tell them the truth. If you have and are unable to tell them, it is better to tell them that you have the information but you cannot release it; than to withhold or twist the truth.

5.    Explain “what’s in it for them”.  In my empirical research, often the change recipients want to know how the change announcements will affect them in their daily work.  They want to know what has changed and what has not changed for them as an employee.

6.    Your communication must align with what you SAY and what you DO. Most change messages go through formal channels of communication. The message that people most want to hear or see is, what are you as a leader doing to support the change?  What have you done differently to align with the change?  Therefore, what you do in the hallway is more important than what you say in the meeting room.

7.    Paint the big and little pictures. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Big Picture: Presenting the entire transformational journey.

Little Picture: How are we going to do that?

Big Picture: Setting long-term goals.

Little Picture: Where do we begin?

Big Picture: Sharing the overall objectives of the transformation.

Little Picture: What are the priorities?

Big Picture: Creating the change mission of the organisation.

Little Picture: Where does my contribution fit in?

Big Picture: Communicating the new organisational values to support the transformational journey.

Little Picture: What does this mean in my daily work?

8.    Enlist you employees in a shared change vision. Is your vision compelling enough to inspire your employees to want to follow you?  Are you able to integrate their sense of meaning to the compelling vision?

9.    Be emotionally literate. Being able to facilitate the human emotional process needed in a change journey is a key enabler to raise your employees’ receptivity to a transformational change effort.

10.    Be clear what should not change. Knowing what has to be preserved and what needs to be changed is key in maintaining the organisation's psychological equilibrium throughout the change process.           

Remember that resistance to change can be dissolved if we as leaders can be humanly sensible and sensitive towards our people throughout the change process.