Keep Calm and Manage Change

Originally appeared at Inc.

Change is a constant in every business, but managing through change can be highly volatile. Whether it’s the arrival of new management, disruptive technologies, or customer tastes, leaders must act decisively to pivot with the market while allaying fears and pushback from team members who cling to legacy thinking and behaviors.

How effectively leaders respond to these challenges could be the difference between their company becoming Blockbuster or Netflix.

As a communications speaker and consultant, I’ve noticed that the most skillful and sensitive leaders take a coach approach to managing change cycles. They demonstrate empathy but provide the right amount of challenge and support. They commit to new priorities but listen to the concerns of team members. Most important of all, these leader-coaches navigate their teams towards safer, stronger ground — capitalizing on change as an opportunity for contribution and growth.

Here’s how you can lead your employees though your company’s most difficult periods of change:

Restore a sense of safety.

The most immediate casualty of change is security. For many workers, the prospect of change conjures fears of what will be lost, such as status, responsibilities, business applications and even colleagues. The ensuing stress can deal a blow to productivity, creativity and even personal health. 

Leaders can curb this self-limiting tendency by restoring a sense of safety. Researchers at UCLA have shown that the simple act of verbalizing emotions can give people greater control over their fears.

Help your team discern real and imaginary fears by asking them to describe their worst-case scenarios: “What could go wrong here — and can you live with it?”Listening to your employees’ fears will yield a greater understanding of the root causes.  

Reinforce the facts.

News of impending changes — a proposed merger, staff shakeup or major rewrite of company rules — can quickly spiral into a frenzy of speculation, misinformation and doubt. To keep things on track, leaders should relay clear and consistent messaging that separates truth from fiction. 

Instead of sharing new developments in a company-wide email or all-hands meetings, consider a targeted approach for key announcements. Holding small meetings with select personnel allows leaders to speak frankly and fairly with employees. Together, they can debunk misconceptions, reinforce facts and clarify goals. 

Ask them: “What additional information would help you feel better about these changes?” Knowledge is comfort. 

Refocus attention to the present. 

Early in the change cycle, employees may experience temporary performance drags as they adjust to new work realities. They may report feeling sluggish, frustrated or too overwhelmed by new demands to get anything done. Leaders can help by refocusing attention to the present: “What are you working on now, and how can I help you meet those goals?”

Stepping back into the present provides much-need relief. In a series of studies spanning more than a decade, researchers showed how people facing a range of changing circumstances — from new schools to new relationships to new jobs — can regain focus with a simple exercise: spending ten minutes writing about the positive affects of the values they hold.

Doing something similar with your employees can alleviate the stress that naturally follows upheaval. Try the following reflection: “What about this work brings you the most satisfaction, and how can you carry that forward as things evolve?”

Renew commitments to grow.

As fear gives way to acceptance, leaders should channel efforts towards growth: concrete ways that employees can leverage change for long-term benefits. Once employees indicate more comfort with change, it’s an ideal time for leaders to create internal procedures to ensure that momentum is solidified and sustained.

Start by creating a growth blueprint: What does growth look like, and what are the impediments standing in its way? Engage your team in the planning process and seek their input at every pass. Developing this blueprint requires that all team members know what’s expected of them and how their role fits into the team’s larger purpose and priorities.

People don’t fear change — they fear being changed. By acknowledging and addressing the emotions likely to surface during a change cycle, you’ll not only help others go through change, but grow from it, too. 

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