Ideas & Debate

Navigating resistance to organisational change



  • Having the wisdom to see through red herrings like worker strike threats and persistent system “outages” is vital.

In my early years as a relationship manager in banking, which was about two decades ago, our foreign-owned bank had the great honour of introducing a new cash management system to a parastatal that had thousands of casual labourers.

The problem that the parastatal was trying to resolve was one of paying the casual workers on a weekly basis which required tens of weary cashiers, millions of shillings in cash and a nightmare of a reconciliation system.

Our solution was to outsource this to a security firm that we partnered with who would place the wages in a sealed envelope with a small gap that enabled the recipient to confirm the amount, cashiers who were independent of the organisation and thus free from being compromised and an immediate reconciliation of the total wages paid vis a vis the payroll that we were being given. On paper it was a beautiful solution. However, on the ground things became very elephant very quickly!

The sun shone brightly on the morning of the first day of the new system rollout. The labourers lined up as usual in the yard outside a corrugated-roofed building where the payroll was usually handed out. There were also random strangers milling about the yard whose presence we didn’t initially take notice of.

Once the labourers who were first in line got over the shock of seeing new cashiers in the security company’s uniform handing them the easily verifiable pay envelopes against their national identification cards, they walked out of the building and quickly spread the word that there was a new payment system.

Murmurings then spread throughout the yard, but we were blissfully unaware of what the undercurrents were. Within a couple of hours, the payments were done and the yard had thinned out to the random strangers who were the poisonous gangrene in the system that needed to be cut off, and it was not going to be an easy excision.

The parastatal had a slew of ghost workers on the payroll and the internally managed payment system provided the perfect opportunity to pay these “workers” whose dues were being collected by the random strangers that were working in cahoots with the previous internal cashiers.

As the new cashiers required national identification cards against which they would release the wage packets to the worker listed on the payroll, we found that at the end of the day there were a few hundred wage packages that were not collected. And that is when the rain started to beat us.

The following week, pay day arrived and the sun shone just as brightly. However, a maelstrom was brewing and our bank was about to get into the eye of a horrible storm.

As the labourers peacefully lined up and waited their turn, a few rabble rousers who had been turned away by the cashiers as they did not have the national identity cards to verify themselves started shouting that the new payment system was rigged. They then began claiming very loudly that the organisation had been sold to ‘mzungus’ who were there to make changes and fire the very casual workers that were being paid. Word quickly got to the managing director that a riot was about to ensue and he rushed over to the yard to meet angry workers, spittle flying from their mouths as they hurled verbal invectives at him. The new cashiers were petrified and cowered in their caged hall as some of the workers had started to try and pull apart the security wire mesh that separated them from the mob.

To cut a long and sordid story short, the managing director literally broke open one of the boxes that had the wage packets and screamed at the cashiers to ensure that everyone was paid.

By the time we got there having received a furious tongue lashing from the executive himself, it was absolute mayhem but our partner security company had held its ground and only paid those who were able to identify themselves appropriately. This was despite the managing director’s orders to just go ahead and pay whoever as he was well aware of the political implications of the ‘sold to mzungus’ claim that the rabble rousers were fomenting, which could have implications on his job.

When the dust settled that evening, the ghost worker numbers and the savings that the new ghost busting system had generated helped to calm the executive down. Once it was communicated very loudly that the outsourced payment system was there to stay, the trouble makers slunk away into a thieving oblivion and we all lived happily ever after.

I came away from that painful experience much wiser to the fact that in an organisational change, the resisters to new ways of working shout the loudest and the longest while throwing sand in the eyes of the executive management and the board like pathetic school yard bullies. Having the wisdom to see through red herrings like worker strike threats and persistent system “outages” is vital, in tandem with the gumption to plough past the noise and see the changes through.

[email protected] Twitter: @carolmusyoka