Leadership is all about change, not status quo. Fear of change is often what holds us back, and therefore being able to manage change well is the nitty gritty of leadership.
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 are constantly trying to protect us, don’t like the unknown and try their hardest to overwrite uncertainty with any of a myriad of possible outcomes, causing our brains to cycle through those outcomes without knowing where to land. Change is the same for all of us, and trying to evaluate anything based on half-cocked assumptions only serves to release a steady stream of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems, resulting in some less-than-desirable behaviour from the best of us!
Because we know that people resist change, leaders often try to protect their team from it by cushioning their demands and directions at best, or not voicing their requirements at worst. 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 strategize around. Recognising these helps us to guide our team through them. Let’s look at three main concerns:
1. Loss of Control
Change can make us feel that we’ve lost control over the things we “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. Without enough information to plot a clear way forward, it’s very difficult to 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 them take 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, 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 can, 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. This allows people to remain focused and maintain their dignity. For example, 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. Regardless of the speed and size of change, ensure those affected have adequate guidance, training and resources to make those changes effectively without burning thin. Support is key!
3. Change is REAL
Change is an out-of-your-comfort-zone look at reality and it CAN hurt. Firstly, regardless of what the change is, it adds to your processing and workload. There will always be a trial and error phase, and there will also be ripple effects that touch others as the change takes place. Kanter’s Law states that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.” and it takes patience and encouragement to move through change. 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 their 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.
Communicate. Be compassionate. Be clear. As human beings, we thrive on what we can see clearly and what we know how to handle. Creating clarity, a roadmap of steps forward, and route checks or reassessment points along the way helps our teams move forward with confidence.
Modified from an earlier 2019 article by the same writer.
by Christen Killick
February 8th, 2021