Three Things That Matter When Leading Change

changeAs we process life’s inevitable changes, our emotional responses may be at odds with what we say or think. What is calmly acknowledged at the head level often belies inner turmoil at the heart level. Sometimes, the emotions simply have to play catch up. The impact of the departure of work colleagues or leader, children beginning school or leaving home, even the death of a person or a business, can all trigger understandable emotions that take time to work through. Sometimes change can touch on past experiences or generate irrational responses, but any emotions are real and cannot simply be bypassed. Appreciating this reality in others is not easy when we don’t walk in their shoes. Often, the range of people’s emotions within change can include ones that are disconcerting for leaders. People act uniquely and sometimes unpredictably. So how can people’s reactions be optimised safely and responsibly, without seeking to control what they should look like?

1. Anticipating responses. People are valuable and long-term relationships can feel threatened if the status quo underwriting them is upset. When addressing planned change, it is often useful to acknowledge the responses that may emerge at the emotional level and that connect to the inevitable question: “What will this mean for me?” This will probably not work through just one speech or conversation either! Addressing and managing change in light of what people’s questions are likely to be can help us to protect people from themselves. Organisationally, the bigger the ship, the more likely it is that sudden and badly-navigated changes of direction will throw half the people overboard (and make the other half seasick). Underestimating the emotional impact of change, even after it seems to have been accepted verbally, can undermine trust and threaten effective outcomes. While time frames may shorten when change is enforced, the temptation can be to presume how people should respond instead of recognising how they do.

2. Budgeting time. There is no USB port in the back of people’s heads. We can’t quickly reprogram culture or enforce willing acceptance and adjustment, which is why organisational change can take years. Grief can often take longer to work through than we are prepared for. Children may especially need attention to the fact that they are not miniature adults amidst change. Also, relationships under threat can agitate emotions that cannot easily be ‘put back inside’. Time is an essential tool for the gradualism of acceptance, knowing that not all are ‘early adopters’ (or adapters). Typically, people will need to be convinced of the necessity or reality of change well before being ready to embrace what they do not yet see, no matter how vivid the vision that is presented. Arrangements for planned change should be clearly articulated to avoid misunderstandings and confusions and time will then be needed for consultation and for the outworking of transition that brings the key players together on the shared journey.

3. Celebrating the Past. Some endings are necessary or inevitable. These are not so easy to accept if change is undesirable, so they need to be embraced with as much dignity as possible. Respecting the past that has gone or that needs to change will then build a bridge to the new reality. Souvenirs or memories of the past can helpfully affirm its value and build good will and emotional building blocks for a new season. The future, though it is not always welcomed, can then be embraced for what it is partly because of what the past was. Where people are transitioning out of roles, they should be celebrated as heroes so that their contribution to the present and the future vision is recognised. New leaders are not always welcomed emotionally, so need to be allowed to be the best version of who they have been created to be and not an inferior version of the person they are replacing. Clear, cautious and respectful communication on change is not about being decisive as much as it is about recognising that effectiveness happens heart to heart and not head to head.

Of course, the passage of time does not guarantee that changes are always the right ones (or that they go well). Planned change can be managed wisely, but unplanned change, too, involves recognition that emotional responses are normal and natural within the mists of uncertainty that will lift in time if the change is navigated well.

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