Successfully Changing Your Agency

Federal, state or local, every agency has employees that recall a simpler, better time in their organization’s operations.

Unfortunately, these public servants are sometimes too resistant to change – internally, they hurt morale by resisting any alterations to the status quo. Externally, they disappoint citizens by seeming inflexible and set in their ways.

Dr. Antionette Allen has repeatedly encountered this phenomenon while working in the federal government. Now at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Allen argues that the public servants who are most hesitant to change haven’t been helped to adjust to it.

“When something changes, something ends,” she said Thursday during GovLoop’s 2019 NextGen Government Training Summit. “When someone loses something, they mourn, or they grieve. Leaders often won’t stop to think about, ‘What are people going to lose when we implement change?’”

Allen is a faculty member at OPM’s Center for Leadership Development (CLD). CLD is an OPM component that provides agency, interagency and tri-sector leadership development with education programs for all career levels.

According to Allen, employees gradually enter a neutral zone where they’ve processed what they’ve lost in a change without accepting the transformation itself.

“The neutral zone is a dangerous place,” she said. “It’s where the rumor mill kicks in. This place is where we lose people. You will lose momentum, particularly in a leadership position.”

Allen noted that successfully implementing change at agencies often involves readying the employees for new beginnings there.

“They understand that the past is behind them and that they now have to move forward,” she said of the right attitude agency employees should have.

So how do agencies considering major changes access their readiness for them? Allen argued that three criteria determine an agency’s readiness for change.

First, Allen said that agency leaders must assess how their organization’s past initiatives went and adjust their new version accordingly.

Next, she continued, agencies must avoid having their executives detaching from the work their employees will experience realizing possible changes.

Finally, Allen added, agencies should determine their successes and failures upon completing any changes.

“If we don’t consider these things, we’re reinventing the wheel every time,” she said. “It’s a significant waste of time.”

Allen then listed three focus areas – habits, understandings and grips – that must be measured before change begins.

According to Allen, habits are the routines that people have adopted and might not be ready to abandon following changes.

Understandings, meanwhile, reveal how people implementing changes understand themselves, their teams and their organizations.

Lastly, grips are the attachments that people have; people either cling to past traditions or try to grip the shape of the future.

“When we hold too tight to the past, it causes stresses,” Allen said. “When we hold too tight to the future, it causes anxiety.”

Allen concluded that ultimately people have the choice to thrive, survive or despise the changes that happen to them. Regardless of what they pick, however, things can’t remain the same forever.

“Change is going to happen, it’s inevitable,” she said. “It’s the best thing for us to embrace change. If we don’t, we’ll be standing on the other side of it as it passes us by.”