Leading (And Following) Through Change

In our previous article, we discussed that for most of us change is uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. We fear the unknown. Naturally, we face organizational change with resistance, either openly or passively.

Leading through an organizational change is a great balancing act that appears to be more of an art than a science. This act requires of leaders to have a sound skill and a strong will. Each organization has their distinct culture and history, and there is no definitive prescription to successfully lead through change. The key is to remember that as leaders we cannot tell people stop feeling what they feel. On the contrary, fighting resistance directly will just bring in more resistance. However, several time and experience proven approaches can guide us in an effective change management while embracing resistance as a part of the process.

Create a vision. When we lead, we have to be certain to which direction we are going. It may be challenging to create a vision to manage an externally driven organizational change, such as downsizing due to economic conditions. Yet, the vision is the main starting point and the foundation of change management. Ideally, leader’s vision would embrace full understanding of organization’s current situation and the implications for future. Employee involvement in creating a vision is critical to employees’ future ownership of the vision.
Set strategic goals. Organizational change management requires setting strategic goals. Again, employee involvement in crafting the goals is important. Goals should be backed up by short term objectives (2-8 weeks). These goals may differ from strategic goals developed during stable organizational times as they would be shorter termed. Generally, leaders should refer to these goals and objectives on daily basis and update employees on progress on at least a weekly basis. First, it allows leaders to better measure the progress of change. Secondly, it involves employees and provides them with a better sense of control when they know “where they are”.
Communicate. Communication must be timely, true, and consistent. Be positive, but realistic in your messages. Employees have to know reasons for the change, the vision, the plan, and implications for their performance expectations or job security. Using a variety of communication pathways is a good strategy. However, if you already shared information that may be anxiety provoking such as possible layoffs or reduction in work hours, avoid repeating that information again and again unless you have new information pieces to add. Let employees know when they can expect an update and follow through before or on that date.
Keep an open door policy. It’s a good approach when leaders welcome employees to come to them directly with any questions about the change process. With that, it also means that leaders should embrace a mindframe of openness where they genuinely expect employee questions and are forthcoming with answers. Let’s also keep in mind that building trust is a process, and not the task; it may take numerous conversations before employees start trusting leaders and the change process.
Appreciate and highlight successes that employees attain during the change process, such as learning a new skill, learning a new computer program, or embracing a new role. Most importantly, treat and believe that your people are your most valuable asset. To be effective, praise and appreciation has to honest and authentic – embrace your employee’s behaviors not only by your mind, but also your heart. Apologize when you are incorrect. Show that you care about your employees beyond work environment.

When we are following through change, we are also not powerless (although it may feel that way).

Face your feelings about the change, especially when the change is imposed and beyond your control. Figure out what your fears or worries are. You don’t have to be a victim, even when you are not in control of the change. Write about your feelings. Embrace the notion that feelings are pleasant or unpleasant, but they are not bad or good.
Choose your thoughts and attitudes about the change. Negative thoughts block your creativity and problem-solving abilities. Positive thoughts build bridges to possibilities and opportunities. Keep a record of the choices you make in your thoughts and attitudes. Catch your negative self-talk – instead of telling yourself “I cannot handle it anymore”, ask yourself “How I can handle it?” Instead of saying “never” or “always”, say “this time”. Welcome change as an opportunity and explore the benefits of the change.
Rely on peer support. Seek positive support from peers and provide the same to them. When someone’s feeling down, put your effort in reframing their negative thoughts into positive ones. Ask for help in the process of learning a new role or a new task. While it is OK to occasionally vent to someone and share your frustrations, venting will not ultimately change your situation, but instead may create poor morale all around. Instead stay positive and solution focused.

An organizational change is a challenging process for both leaders and followers. Resistance, anxiety, and strong feelings often accompany the process. While we cannot talk ourselves or others out of feelings overnight, leaders and followers can work together to make the change process smoother.