Leading Change
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Leading Change

Imagine that you’re implementing a new system or process that you’re confident will make your organization better. In fact, you’re thrilled about the impact that this change will have on your organization. How does your team feel? Well, let’s just say they have different thoughts. For whatever reason, not everyone shares your unbridled enthusiasm about the move, and it’s not just that some people aren’t as enthusiastic as you are. Some team members are quietly but openly in opposition to the change. You push through, believing that people will come around sooner or later, but when go-live comes, people drag their feet and struggle to transition. Complaints begin to stack up. 

You call a meeting with point leaders and wonder aloud, “Why is this so difficult?” Someone quips, “Well, you know what they say; people don’t like to change.”

People Don’t Like to Change?

There is a prevailing thought that people hate change, but that’s not entirely true. Think about it, people make changes all the time and enjoy them. They go on vacations for a change of scenery, renovate their homes because it’s time to freshen things up, and leave their jobs because they just “need something different.” 

The truth is people don’t mind changing when they’re the ones in the driver’s seat. What they resist are changes that they don’t understand. The ones that are forced upon them and cause them to lose something they value without providing them something of equal or greater value. In organizations, this explains some of the lag between the implementation of a change by leadership and the acceptance of it by the team. 

If leaders want to minimize this lag, we must do a better job at addressing the psychological factors that make people reluctant to embrace change. So how do we do this? We’re glad you asked! We believe most leaders could quickly improve upon two factors to enhance their experience regarding leading change.

Communicate Why a Change is Needed

Research suggests that 68 percent of senior managers understand the reasons behind major organizational decisions, but only 53 percent of middle managers and 40 percent of first-line supervisors say their management does a good job explaining those decisions. To quote the classic line from the Captain in Cool Hand Luke, it seems like “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” We frequently encounter leaders who believe that their reasons for making changes are clear to their team, only to be blind-sided when we tell them otherwise. And this isn’t just a breakdown in cascading information; if this stat runs true in your organization, it means that 32 percent of your senior leaders don’t know why a major decision was made! That might explain why some projects struggle to get off the ground; people don’t understand why the decision was made and subsequently struggle to commit to it. Great leaders inspire action by clearly and consistently aligning people around the purpose behind decisions.

Address Your Team’s Loss

Change is often marked with resistance because people are forced to let go of something they value. To put it another way, people are not change-averse; they are loss-averse. If we want to smooth out organizational transitions, we will do well to pay attention to the losses that people will face as we change. Loss of turf, power, relationships, familiarity, competency, and even identity can be at stake when we change something. This can create significant psychological barriers for people to get behind a change behaviorally. To minimize this, leaders can do three things.

  1. Ask Questions. Before making changes, mine for people’s reservations and concerns (i.e., fears).
  2. Listen for Meaning. When people start answering those questions, listen for the things of value that might feel jeopardized, risked, and lost temporarily or permanently through the change.
  3. Empathize with What Could be Challenging. Put yourself in their discomfort and acknowledge the struggle. These statements might help communicate empathy effectively:
  • I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into this, and it must be frustrating to change from something familiar to something you need to learn.
  • I can hear your concerns about meeting our service standards while we make this shift. I think this change ultimately will help us serve our customers better, but as we transition, what can we do to ensure that you and they feel supported?
  • Times of change can be challenging. Are there questions that you have that I could answer that would make this process easier for you?

As you listen for the losses, communicate the value of what is being gained. Have you heard the phrase, “no pain, no gain”? Unfortunately, change initiatives for participants are often experienced as “all pain, no gain.” Yes, we need to communicate the organizational value, but we should also share how a change benefits individuals in their weekly experience. Will they gain more time? Will this cut down on the number of frustrating conversations that they’ll have with customers or teammates? Working through a loss is always easier when we have clarity around what will be gained.

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Reflection: Which change factor has been most problematic for you and your organization? How can you help current or future change initiatives move forward?

Ethos Leadership Group, LLC

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