Ahh Change - exhilarating, challenging or tumultuous? It all depends on your perspective, doesn’t it? Typically those driving change find it welcome and exciting. Those on the receiving end...not so much. Expecting employees to just “get on board” and tough it out is almost always unproductive and damaging. In these situations, reports Towers Watson, “employees fear they will not get the support they need to successfully navigate these changes and therefore have a preference for stability.” Instead, individuals need to acquire resilience in the face of uncertainty.
New IT platforms, product adoptions, staffing restructures, cost cutting, new leadership, and office relocations are all changes that result in distractions that can sap your team’s energy and crush their productivity. So, at these critical junctions which require the most from employees, they are often, ironically, least prepared and able to deal with them.
I have always thought of Big Change as a trapeze act. Imagine yourself swinging on a trapeze 40 feet in the air. Before you are willing to let go of that bar in your hand, you better have a really clear vision of that next bar you’re going to grab on to. And you better have a high degree of confidence that you’ll be able to reach it. Otherwise, you’ll hang on tight with both hands, not going anywhere.
At the heart of Big Change there is almost always a feeling of loss. Loss of responsibility, clarity, identity. “I used to be an expert at this and now I’m starting over in this new role.” “I used to understand the CRM system and now I’ll lose time learning the new one.”
Just like with that trapeze bar, with change there are three phases that all employees go through:
- Endings - The bar you are hanging on to.
- Transition - You are in the air, neither here nor there.
- A New Beginning - Got it! New bar firmly in both hands!
If you take one thing from this article, remember this - You can NOT jump to a New Beginning without going through Endings and a Transition.
Your job as a leader is to help guide your employees through these phases as quickly and effectively as possible. There is a lot we could cover here, but let’s focus on 3 things that employees WANT during times of change, and the 3 things they often GET, as well as what you can do as a manager to help.
There are three things that you as a manager can do and should avoid doing to lead your employees through Endings and Transition to finally land on that New Beginning:
Want and Get #1 – Empathy vs. Autocratic Behavior
Autocratic behavior is the equivalent of “shake it off” or “get over it and move on.” The problem with this is that you are driving too quickly to Beginnings, when your employee is still hanging on to the “old” for dear life. They may be in wait and see mode. They may even say all the right things, but they are not yet ready to invest their energy in the new way.
In order to help them get over that loss or Ending, you need to first empathize. I love Brene’ Brown’s characterization of empathy in business, as described in her brilliant book, “Dare to Lead", “In the face of a difficult conversation, when we see some one is hurt…it’s our instinct as human beings try to fix it...But empathy isn’t about fixing, it’s a brave choice to be with someone in their darkness – not to race to turn the light on so we feel better.” She continues, “Empathy is not jumping into a hole with someone who is struggling and...owning their (emotional) struggle as yours to fix. If their issues become yours, now you have two people stuck in a hole. Not helpful.”
By demonstrating empathy, listening and engaging your employee in a dialogue, you’re taking an important step to acknowledge their concerns and move to Transition.
Want and Get #2 – Information vs. Avoidance
As managers, we often don’t have all of the information yet, or are not in a position to share it. The worst thing you can do is avoid the subject completely. As human beings we are incredibly creative creatures and our brains are wired to answer questions and solve problems. If there is a vacuum of information, we will fill it! And it’s usually with worst case scenarios. This type of catastrophizing is a real energy drain. Avoiding the issue will not make the fears go away. They will continue to lurk and grow.
So, talk with your employees regularly both formally and informally through Town Halls, water cooler conversations, team meetings and one on ones. Let your employees know what won’t change as well, what they can rely on, hopefully your candor, empathy, and support as a leader! Even if you don’t have the answers, sharing “I don’t know this yet, but as soon as I do I promise I’ll share with you” will ease tension.
Want and Get #3 - Ideas versus Rah Rah
We have all heard the corporate cheerleaders say “It’s going to be GREAT!”, “Look at the positives”, “Think of the possibilities.” They are all nice sentiments, but difficult to believe when you’re in the middle of a painful change.
Instead, share ideas and engage your employees in a conversation to get their thoughts and ideas as well. “I understand you’re feeling frustrated over the lack of resources and travel ban. Let’s see if we can get creative about some ideas for meeting the objectives with the resources we have.” “I know the commute to the new headquarters will be longer for you, which must be a concern. Let’s put our heads together and come up with some ideas to help you keep that work/life balance that’s important to you.”
Too many organizations focus on systems and processes during change, often neglecting the impact on people. That’s a recipe for frustration, lack of productivity and unwanted turnover. Help your employees manage through Endings and Transitions by stepping up your communication to empathize, share information and ideas. You will support a faster and more productive transition to “How good can we get?”
Let us know what you think and please feel free to share!