In all likelihood, your company is undergoing some type of change right now. You might be adding products or dropping them. Reorganizing or rightsizing. Acquiring or divesting. Innovating or expanding. The types of business change are endless; but, whatever the change is, your job remains the same: to lead your people through the change successfully.
As we coach leaders on leading their people through change, one question frequently arises: “I understand that I need to help my team navigate through change from the current state to the future state. But how do I deal with my own angst, my own frustrations, and my own anxieties about the change? I’m nervous, too!”
It would be wonderful if we lived in a sequential world where business leaders decided upon a change, processed it thoroughly themselves, then rolled it out to the employee base. That’s not life. Usually, leaders are processing their own reactions to change while simultaneously trying to help their team process the change. For example, suppose a company hires a new VP of Finance. The director under that VP is going to be figuring out her relationship with her new boss while she is in the act of helping her team respond to the change in personnel, strategy, and approach. That is a difficult – and stressful – position to be in.
If you are tasked with leading change but you don’t feel completely settled yourself about the change, it is absolutely essential that you take action to address your own concerns. You can’t bury your concerns and pretend they don’t exist – your tensions, doubts, and fears will leak out in your interactions with your team members. They will get the signal that you have not fully bought into the new state you are asking them to navigate to. That will, in turn, cause your people to become disengaged or cynical, undermining the change initiative.
Here are three guidelines to addressing your own concerns about change:
1. Never vent to your team members about the change.
It is never appropriate for a leader to voice questions or concerns about the change to his or her staff. For example, you should never say, “This is all screwed up. I can’t believe the company decided to go in this direction.” If you vent to your team members in this way, they will dig in their heels to resist the change.
That being said, it is fine to acknowledge to your team that change is challenging and that you have been challenged by it. It is perfectly acceptable to share questions you have had and how you worked through them. That affirms your humanity and builds an empathetic bridge with your people. But anything and everything you say should have one primary goal: to support the change and lead your people through the change successfully.
2. Go offline to process your response to change.
Since it is never appropriate to use your own team members as your sounding board, you need to go offline to find a counselor, mentor, or colleague to help you process your own reactions to change. The person you go to may be inside or outside the company. They might even be affected by the change themselves. All that is necessary is that the person is able to give you a good perspective, help you process your response, and remind you of what you need to do to lead your team through the change.
3. Structure your conversations to process the change.
Going offline to a colleague, counselor, or mentor does not mean having a gripe session. Griping is unproductive and will simply feed your own resistance to the change. To actually have a productive conversation that helps you work through the change, take the time to reflect on what your concerns are. Ask yourself:
- What is it specifically that’s bothering me?
- Why am I reacting the way that I am to the concerns that I have?
- Given the facts that I’m aware of, does my reaction make sense?
- Is it possible that I’m just afraid of change?
Write down your thoughts, and bring your notes with you to the offline discussion. You will then be able to structure your conversation to assess the facts, your reasoning, and your reactions. The other person will be able to share their perspective and insights and help you move forward.
Because you will be processing your own response to the change at the same time you are helping your people through the change, you might have to “fake it until you make it.” That is all right. Pointing people unswervingly toward the future state despite your own uncertainties is not hypocritical – it demonstrates your commitment to your role as a leader. Because, at the end of the day, your job remains the same: to lead your people through the change successfully.