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Change...we need?

I think almost everyone in the country could relate to this topic, either through their own experience, or that of family or friends. Its something that is endemic in organisations, and particularly in government departments, QUANGOS and statutory bodies like the Police, Fire and Ambulance Service. It has been hugely encouraged, often rightly so, in light of the current economic climate. If the title didn't give it away; i'm talking about change.

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I've worked in the Police since i was 19, that's just 6 years. In that time i can't think of a day that goes by where i don't have to learn a new policy or change the way i work. As annoying as it may seem to me, i can see the justification for most of it.

The Police has been accused of many things, the most serious of which was, in the late 80's and early 90's, its inability to learn from its mistakes and take a proactive approach to improvement. Our ability to admit our mistakes, learn from them, and actively avoid complacency is something that we, as an organisation, should be very proud of. Despite the huge improvements, we still have a long way to go.

There is a gold standard industry when it comes to the investigation of mistakes, errors, critical incidents and change management, and that's the airline industry. There are very few serious incidents involving planes, but when they do occur a large response is coordinated to safe lives and gather evidence. The most important part of that response, in my opinion, is the investigation into the cause of the incident by organisations like Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB). I call them the gold standard because very rarely do two alike incidents ever happen, and the credit for that goes to the persistent investigation by expert investigators, legislation allowing safety changes to be made very quickly, and the requirement for regulated aircraft to make those changes within a short period.

My point is; i'm not criticising the climate of change. I am, in fact, encouraging continued and increased change. The difficulty comes with the method with which change is managed. Change does not ever have to be traumatic or overwhelming for the staff involved, but more often than not it is. Again, this isn't necessarily a criticism of those who manage change. Us humans can be very unpredictable, we have varying needs, hugely varied home lives, and even more varied personalities. As they say; you can't please everyone all the time. With the benefit of hindsight we could all criticise decisions, but that's not a useful approach to take.

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To really understand how change effects individuals we have to look at human psychology. I have mentioned Maslow's Hierarchy numerous times, most recently on the subject of The Big Society in mid September this year. It's not fool proof, and on its own it doesn't paint the full picture. However, it is useful because it is easily understood and provides us all with a useful framework with which to begin at.

The hierarchy has had a lot of different labels. The main image you will see is of a pyramid...actually Maslow did not ever use a pictorial version of his hierarchy. Some pyramids will be based on Maslow's original work, some will have extra labels as applied by subsequent psychologists...im going to keep it simple to prove my point.

What is important to know about the hierarchy is that it is like a ladder. The bottom rung of the ladder is the start of your journey, and the top is where you aspire, psychologically, to be. It's our job to make sure that each rung is strong enough to take our 'weight' before advancing on to the next one. Let me give you an example.

The Scenario; I have just got a new job which challenges me on an intellectual level, as well as university. I'm feeling much better after my spell in hospital, i have secure accommodation and a great group of friends.

The first rung of the ladder is psychological...i tend to refer to this as homoeostasis, which is basically the bodies ability to "maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability". Food, drink, sleep, health etc.

In my scenario i've got all those things, so that rung of the ladder is strong enough for me to advance to the next level; Safety. Safety is about having a roof over ones head, being free from any form of abuse, and being able to support a safe lifestyle through some form of income. A few days ago i didn't have that. I was in my overdraft, thought i would have to leave university in order to earn, and didnt know how i was going to continue to pay my bills. I could not have advanced up the ladder, so i would be stuck at the first rung until the second was strong enough to support my 'weight'.

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The next 3 levels are; social, esteem, and self actualisation...the latter being our goal.

So i'm sitting on the second rung of the ladder beavering away to strengthen the next rung, social needs. Tomorrow i go into work and am told that my job is at risk because of the economic climate, and that they cannot tell me anything else yet. This is an immediate threat to my security, and where a threat exists the relevant rung of the ladder starts to break down and you need to start descending. One could achieve self actualisation, and when their job is at risk they could drop right down to psychological. This is an innate defence mechanism that cannot be avoided, after all we are human and not robots.

The higher up the ladder you are, the happier you will be. The happier you are, the more productive you are, the more you learn, and its on this happiness that true success is built. One mention of my job being at risk drops me right down to the bottom, and due to the psychological reaction to that drop i start to experience negative responses...these are responses that cannot be avoided, they just have to be managed.

So knowing this i would say to anyone involved in managing change; check out Maslow's Hierarchy. Your staff will be happier and more productive if you do everything you can to advance them up the ladder. Change has the immediate effect of making people feel insecure, and that will set off a domino effect across everyone...and i mean everyone; staff, customers, general public, senior managers, and the local community.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this article, do you have anything to add? any best practice you would like to share for individuals or organisations? any experiences of poor practice? I'd love to hear them.