Change is a natural process. It's part of our jobs, our relationships, our lives—and it's one of the few constants in life. But whether you're hiring a new manager, adding a department, updating your computer software, using a different technique or moving to a new facility, making a change in your laboratory can be a formidable challenge.
The impetus for change comes from customer demand; competitive pressures; the quest to improve productivity, quality and profitability; and the desire to improve employee satisfaction and retention. Another motivating factor can be the owner's need for dynamism and growth. "Change is always a risk but if your laboratory isn't changing, your business is stagnant," says Dick Pilsner, CDT, president, D&S Dental Lab, Inc., Waunakee, Wisconsin.
"People hate change"—that's the prevailing wisdom whenever things don't work out as planned, especially in the business world. But why is it so difficult? First, there are logistical obstacles to overcome. Suppose, for example, you want to offer a new service. You need to research the available products and decide which one is best for your laboratory, determine the potential demand in the marketplace, consider the learning curve and training required, and calculate all the associated costs and the potential return on your investment. All of these considerations take time that—for many laboratory owners, managers and technicians—is already in short supply.
Even more challenging is dealing with the various personalities in the laboratory. When confronted with new ways of doing things, everyone responds differently. As a result, personality conflicts and misunderstandings can hinder the change process.
For instance, people who are exhilarated by change may feel impatient and frustrated by those who are slow to get on board. On the flip side, those who like the status quo and subscribe to the "better the devil you know..." mentality can be equally annoyed by people who, in their eyes, are plunging ahead with reckless abandon.
As a manager, it is your responsibility to realize that there is no right or wrong way to handle change. Your goal is to understand the different personalities in your lab and learn to adapt your management style to those personalities so you can be sensitive to the needs of each employee.
Industrial psychologists say there are three key reasons why people resist change: they're afraid they will lose something valuable; they don't understand the change and its implications; and/or they don't think the change makes sense. When change is initiated from the top down, resistance tends to be worse. The employees who oppose the change may be responding more to their dislike of having someone else's idea being foisted upon them rather than the idea itself.
The tendency to resist change varies greatly depending on the individual. However, according to Coping with Change in the Workplace, there are several common emotions:
Loss of control. People equate predictability with control. This is a comforting illusion. With loss of control comes a sense of powerlessness. One way that employees reassert control is to actively resist, deny the change or, in extreme cases, act out aggressively see Risky Business: Violence in the Workplace.
Uncomfortable levels of uncertainty or ambiguity. When an employee doesn't understand how changes will affect him personally or doesn't know what other changes may be in the offing, he may feel high levels of anxiety.
Loss of face. Technicians who prefer the old way of doing things often feel belittled by those who eagerly embrace new ideas.
Concerns about future competence. New standards of performance or the introduction of new technologies can result in fears regarding adequate competence.
More work for me. When a new system is implemented, it is not uncommon for employees to feel like they have to take on additional responsibility, expend more energy, and feel used and abused in the process.
Laboratory owners agree that involving employees in the change process and creating an environment that encourages employee-driven change helps minimize opposition to new ideas. "Change goes relatively smoothly in our laboratory and I think it has a lot to do with our corporate culture. Our staff has the autonomy to initiate change and, although I like to know what's going on, ideally I'm the last one to be informed. The one thing that doesn't change is our mission statement; only the means to achieve our mission changes," says Pilsner, whose laboratory employs 80 people.
This mind-set is equally important in smaller laboratories. "Before we make a change, my two employees and I have a meeting to discuss the pros and cons. It's important to have everyone in agreement. Nobody likes surprises because we are all creatures of habit," says Dee Grimm, CDT, owner, Cosmetic Solutions, Salt Lake City, Utah.
When an owner or manager decides to implement a change, he has to be sensitive to the fact that he has had weeks or even months to think through the idea, plan the change and visualize its implementation. His employees, however, may not have had that preparation time and might not immediately see the big picture and long-term payoff.
For example, at Dental Prosthetics Services, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Owner Kristine Van Cleve wanted her educational trainer to start using PTC's Training and Verification System 2000. The trainer has an excellent background in education but she is new to the industry. "Initially, she couldn't see the value of the system but once she researched it and talked to other laboratory trainers, she did a complete turnaround and now embraces it wholeheartedly. She needed to convince herself that it was a useful tool," says Van Cleve.
There is also the potential for a change to cause a domino effect. When Van Cleve bought a laser welder last year, she thought she had covered all her bases by involving all the employees in the C&B and partial departments in the decision-making process. "While the technicians in those departments were fine, employees from other departments were unhappy. They looked at it almost like a toy, and wondered why we needed this expensive machine and how it might impact their wages. We didn't go far enough in explaining the big picture to all the employees. Don't underestimate the value of communication or the number of people who should be informed about impending changes," she warns.
To enhance communication, Pilsner's laboratory offers Knowledge Workshops on how to manage and cope with change. Dan Schrader, PhD, a professor from the corporate professional studies department of a local college, conducts the workshops and helps Pilsner tailor the curriculum to the specific needs of the laboratory. "Schrader addresses problem solving, conflict management, how to use feedback skills to express feelings about change, and how to recognize different personality types and their reactions to change. These are valuable tools that help keep the lines of communication open," explains Pilsner. "We're also planning to invite non-laboratory businesses to join us in future workshops so we can get a broader view of how organizations handle change."
In addition to helping employees cope, effective communication also reduces anxiety for the owners and managers. "Change is stressful for me as the owner and that stress increases proportionately with the level of conflict that occurs between staff members. Communicating and keeping everybody in the loop also helps minimize my stress level," says Van Cleve.