Don’t tell people how to feel, admit that it sucks, and other useful change-management tips for leaders

You’ve heard all the expressions: the only constant is change. Change is never easy. There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction. Change before you have to.

But no words can alter the fact that change and disruption are hard on individuals and teams. When faced with an unexpected or unwelcome transition, it’s human nature to immediately descend into fear and doubt. And unless you want your employees to stay there–paralyzed by uncertainty–keep these five change-management tips in mind.

1. Set the Expectation that Change is Inevitable

Oftentimes when a change turns into a disaster, it’s because of employees’ unspoken expectations. If your staff members have fallen into the trap of assuming they work in a stable and comfortable environment, where they’ll always sit at the same desk, next to the same coworkers, reporting to the same manager, forever and always, they may feel blindsided and betrayed when you alter the reporting structure.

Obviously, you can’t control how your employees feel or the stories they tell themselves. But you can frequently communicate your vision of the company as a dynamic and evolving organization, where progress and change are inevitable. If employees hear this message when they’re first hired, and you reinforce the thought frequently in staff meetings, your mission and vision statements, and other company messaging, you can prevent many of your team members from settling into complacency or assuming they work for a static organization. When a major shift happens, they’re more likely to accept it as a matter of course.

You could even switch things up occasionally–even if it’s just the seating chart–for the sole purpose of developing a culture where people are comfortable with change.

2. Understand the “How Will it Affect Me?” Principle

Whether your change is positive (you’re growing so fast you have to move to a new building) or negative (you’re facing a reduction in force), every employee will go straight to, “How will this affect me? Does this mean I have to move my desk? Will I get paid less? Will I get a new boss? Will I have the same responsibilities? Can I still wear jeans to work?”

Accept the fact that any time there’s a major development at work–positive or not–there will be a natural dip in productivity as individuals and teams react and adapt to a new paradigm, environment, organizational structure or leadership team. Your first message should not be, “Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what you should think about it.” This approach will only create additional resistance.

Instead, look at the change through the eyes of each department or person, and give them all time to work through their own individual reactions. Try, “Here’s what’s happening, and we know you’re going to have questions. Let’s talk about them.”

3. Never Package a Negative Change as a Positive One

If you’re making an announcement, and you know your employees will view it negatively, the worst thing you can do is try to convince them that it’s actually a great thing for them. “I know you’re all getting a pay cut, but can I get a round of applause for paying less in taxes?” They will be able to see right through it, and they will view you as insincere and condescending, especially if you stand there and repeat reassuring or soothing phrases over and over again. The third time your employees hear, “It’s going to be okay!” they’ll think, “Oh crap, it’s not going to be okay.”

Just state the facts–including whatever relevant circumstances (not excuses) may have led to this point–sincerely acknowledge that it sucks, and be available to answer questions. As appropriate, you can also outline your plan for forward growth, the measures you’ve put in place to avoid this happening again, and other details that will give your employees more hope for the future. But don’t insult your staff by pretending that a 10% reduction in force is going to be wonderful for them personally. “Yeah, your best friend was laid off, and you’ll have to pick up the slack, but at least you still have a job!” In fact, try not to start any of your sentences with “At least…”.

4. Embrace the Change Cycle

When it comes to change management, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and there’s no predictable timeline for when everyone will be enthusiastically on board. Each person will proceed at his or her own pace through “the change cycle,” which starts with feelings of loss, then doubt, then discomfort, followed by discovery, understanding, and finally integration.

After you announce a major organizational shift, expect for some to move through the cycle in a few hours and others to take a month. What you can’t say is, “Okay, we’ll give everyone until EOB on Friday to process this, then we’ll hit the ground running Monday morning.” The reality is far messier and harder to predict, and any attempt to shortcut the cycle will only lead to disaster.

Rely on what you know about each individual member of your team, and after a while, reach out personally to those who seem to be stuck in doubt or discomfort. Allow them to voice their concerns, ask their questions, or even make their accusations. Seek first to understand, then to be understood as you try to help them make forward progress through the change cycle.

5. Watch Out for the Underminers

Your chances of getting 100% of your employees completely on board with big changes can be slim. Once you’ve made the announcement, given people ample time to work through their reactions, and offered personal assistance to the stragglers, if you’re still noticing hotbeds of resistance or negativity, then it’s time for a different kind of conversation.

Don’t be afraid to be direct: “It’s been 3 months now, and you’re not getting there. Are you going to get there? Or do we need to talk about other options for you?” If you allow destructive attitudes to take root and flourish, you may end up with a small contingent of employees who are determined to make the transition fail–in order to show upper management who was right all along.

This kind of resistance can be especially prevalent during the transition from a small or family-owned company to a bigger, more established organization–perhaps with a new board of directors, an outside CEO, or new investors to appease. At a certain point, after a reasonable amount of time has passed, each employee has just two options: get on board, or get off at the next exit.

Patience is a Virtue

By the time you’re announcing a drastic new initiative to the company at large, you’ve probably already been thinking about it, working through the details, and processing all of the ramifications for a considerable amount of time. Realize that your employees are going to have all the same questions you’ve been working through for months, they’re going to have fears and uncertainties to overcome, and they’re going to experience a temporary drop in productivity.

As a leader, your best approach is to create a culture that embraces change. Respect everyone’s right to have their own reactions, communicate the news with authenticity and empathy, and give everyone time to work through the change cycle at an individual pace.

 

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