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#5 The Challenges of Leadership – Guiding Change

We’ve come to the 5th Leadership Challenge in our 6 part series – the challenge of Guiding Change.  According to William A. Gentry, Regina H. Eckert, Sarah A. Stawiski, and Sophia Zhao’s whitepaper on the subject, guiding change is described as managing, mobilizing, understanding, and leading change.  It includes knowing how to mitigate consequences, overcome resistance to change, and deal with employees’ reactions to change.

This is a biggy as leadership is all about change, not status quo.  You’ve all heard the expression that “change is the only constant”, and being able to manage change well is the nitty gritty of leadership.  Whether it’s planned change (such as a restructuring, mergers or acquisitions), or change that becomes evident as the result of a process of team development and strategy, guiding that change can be a minefield.  Fear of change is what holds us back on so many different levels, and the cure for that fear is education and awareness.

The reason we struggle so much with change is that it’s generally hard to predict exactly what’s on the other side of it.  For this reason, it doesn’t matter whether the change is positive or negative, it can still be stressful.  Our egos, which live in the same part of our brain as our fight or flight reflex, are constantly trying to do their one and only job which is to protect us.  As soon as there is an unknown, no matter how strong our reasoning mind is, our egos will try and fill in that unknown with the absolute worst case scenario so that we’re primed to stay safe.  The problem is that this is often based on many half-cocked assumptions due to lack of information, and serves only to release a steady stream of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems, resulting in some less-than-desirable behaviour from the best of us!

Often, because we know that people resist change, we keep it from them because we think we’re protecting them in some way; when what we should be doing is compassionately preparing them and guiding them through it.  Guiding change well requires that your team trust you.  Trust is born of clarity, truth, transparency and shared reasoning. 

Thankfully, there are some predictable, common sources of resistance that we can understand and strategise around.  Let’s look at three main concerns:

1. Loss of Control

Change can make people feel that they’ve lost control over the things they “knew for certain”.  One day we know what we’re doing, how to do it and what’s expected of us and the next day we don’t.  Renegotiating this takes energy, and it stresses us.  If we don’t have enough information to allow our brains to plot a way forward, then it’s very difficult to quiet our egos and properly apply ourselves to the effort of change.  This unpredictability is what keeps people in dodgy situations far longer than they should be because the dodgy situation seems safer than the unknowns of change.

When you leave room for those affected by change to make choices and invite others into the planning, you help to give them ownership of the change and allow them to maintain a feeling of self-control. Overcoming this doubt and fear requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision – a reason to leap.  When you create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables, you allow people this safety.  When we plant the seeds of change and seek input from those affected rather than trying to maintain an even keel by keeping changes secret at whilst in the planning stage and then announcing it once it’s rolling, we allow people to mentally prepare themselves.

2. Change is Different

Change often means that our habits and routines are jostled to a point of great discomfort.When there is too much change all at once, we struggle to find something certain to ground ourselves with and panic can set in.At a bare minimum, too many changes all at once can create confusion and our brains spend more time trying to deal with the confusion than implementing the new changes.Certain changes, without preparation, can also make us question our competence – especially when new systems and processes are introduced.Without adequate allowance for change, self-doubt can creep into the most established people.

When you take baby steps to introduce bigger changes, focus on changing one thing at a time, and support people with enough information and training on what’s required to make that change, you allow people to remain focused and maintain their dignity.If you’re changing systems, plan for a period of overlap so that people can remain stable in the old whilst they get a grip on the new.Ensure those affected by change have adequate mentorship, training and resources to make those changes effectively without burning thin.

3. Change is REAL

Change is an out-of-your-comfort-zone look at reality and it CAN hurt.  Firstly, regardless of the change, it adds to your processing and workload.  There will always be a trial and error phase of change and Kanter’s Law states that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.”.  There will also be ripple effects of change that touch other departments, clients and customers, vendors, your family and your broader community.  Most stressfully, change can be real when it means retrenchments and restructuring.  The added workload of change requires acknowledgement, support and communication. 

Allowing team members time to focus exclusively on making changes and supporting them whilst they do so with time allowances and reward for unseen sacrifices keeps the spirit and energy alive.  Communicating about change before the ripples go out allow the greater circle of stakeholders to brace themselves.  When change means people may lose their jobs or suffer a significant change in salary or status, then truth, transparency and steadiness are needed.  A strong transition rather than successive waves of cuts is easier to bare for all involved.

One Last Note:

When you’re facing change, you need your team on board and backing that change.  Trust and transparency are paramount if you want people’s energy to be present and focused rather than leaking due to the stress of trying to protect themselves from the unknown.  When change is introduced, you can count on the fact that any remaining legacy issues will come to the surface and demand resolution.  Any past resentments or distrust will make a reappearance and require your attention before people are willing to be on board with you.  Leadership is not for sissies and requires that you keep trustworthy channels open with your team when the going is good – not just when you need them to make a change.

by Christen Killick

September 23rd, 2019

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