Change Management and Conflict Resolution

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Healthcare organizations are experiencing change at a rapid pace; hospitals are merging, large medical groups are forming, and clinically integrated networks and integrated delivery networks are acquiring hospitals and physicians.

These business transactions also have a direct effect on the most valuable asset any healthcare organization has: its employees. Although the human side of these transactions is seldom talked about, failing to address employee issues can be expensive in both cost and reputation, and can lead to unresolved conflict.

How change affects the human side

Failed change initiatives have cost organizations billions of dollars. Additionally, if change is managed poorly and conflict goes unresolved, the costs in human capital can quickly grow to alarming proportions: The average turnover costs within the healthcare industry ranges from $37,700 to $58,400 for a nurse and $274,000 to $498,000 per physician—and that doesn’t account for the toll that low morale, decreased productivity, and workplace drama can take on an organization.

With such high stakes, it’s imperative for leadership to understand why employees resist change and how to assuage their concerns.

Britt Andreatta, PhD, author of Wired to Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success, notes that about 50 percent to 70 percent of change initiatives fail because we are biologically wired to resist change. When organizational change happens, people personalize it and make it about themselves. They start to believe the change is happening to them, for them, or against them.

Additionally, leaders need to understand that resistance to change is not based on ill-will toward the company, but on the fear of unpredictability. When experiencing a change at work, most people ask themselves three main questions:

  • Am I going to have a job?
  • What is changing that will affect my position?
  • What’s in it for me?

Naturally, some changes will create more upheaval than others. Most employees would not choose to experience the large amount of disruption that accompanies rumors of a potential merger, for example. In that situation, your employees may have one of three reactions:

  • They’re excited about the news and the possibilities associated with change.
  • They’re indifferent and keep plugging along.
  • They’re anxious and have many questions.

The majority of your employees will likely fall into in the third category, due to the fear that arises out of an unpredictable situation with large potential for disruption. As a result, they may act out with what are referred to in a change management context as “derailing” behaviors. These behaviors may include looking for new positions, exhibiting a decline in productivity, gossiping about sensitive office issues, and—most concerning—contributing to a compromised patient experience and plummeting patient satisfaction scores.

Derailing behaviors create increased stress levels in the workplace, which can affect morale and even employees’ health and well-being. Even with the most positive of intentions, setting the wrong context around organizational change can turn your upcoming transition into an expensive nightmare—or even a failure.

Keeping this in mind, leaders should be willing to go the extra mile to help their employees welcome change in a positive way.

Organizational change management strategy

Your leadership team should consider the human side of change during the transition process and develop a plan to anticipate and address it. Furthermore, you should expect these changes to create a certain amount of workplace conflict and be prepared to manage it, making it a productive rather than disruptive force.

If you’re experiencing or looking to implement changes within your organization, there are two main strategies that can help you and your employees weather the transition:

Empathize and address

Use empathy to place yourself in your employees’ shoes, acknowledging that change can be frustrating and frightening. Alleviate fears and quell misapprehensions by being prepared to answer questions in an open, honest, and direct manner. Working collaboratively with employees to address the gamut of emotions that may arise will ensure that employees feel heard and understood, helping them understand and ultimately accept the “new normal.”

Communicate clearly

Leaders should create a solid communication plan and execute it effectively. Be as transparent as possible with employees, explaining why the change is happening and how it benefits the organization, helping them see the larger picture and long-term benefits.

Delivering the right message—in the right medium, at the right time, by the right people—is critical. This messaging may look different from one organization to the next, so aligning it with your culture and your employees’ needs is key. Ask your employees for suggestions and work with them to keep the lines of communication open.

Many organizations struggle with the conflict and upheaval that that normally arises due to change. To make a successful transition, it is important for your leadership team to prioritize your employees’ needs and concerns, helping them through uncertain times and making sure that your organization’s change is a positive and successful one.

Lucy Zielinski

By Lucy Zielinski

Lucy specializes in helping health systems and medical groups achieve top financial and operational performance through physician-hospital alignment, including clinically integrated networks, practice transformation, coding and revenue cycle improvement, and physician leadership programs.