As a leader, when you hear the words “change management,” you may cringe inside. Perhaps you remember a change that was rough, such as handling a large layoff or learning to comply with complex regulations or being acquired in a hostile takeover. Yet change management is not only called for in difficult circumstances; it is also vital in the midst of changes that are seen as positive by everyone affected. In such situations, it is easy to let down your guard and assume that because people are enthusiastic about the change that things will proceed “bump-free.”
The truth is that no change in business (or anywhere else in life, for that matter) is “bump-free.” Darrl R. Conner describes the path that organizational change takes in his book Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail. He explains that, when faced with a positive, desirable change, people typically go through four stages: Uninformed Certainty, Informed Doubt, Realistic Hope, and Informed Certainty.
The first stage, Uninformed Certainty, we call “ignorance on fire.” The change has been defined, the need for change is recognized, the end goal is attractive, and people are gung-ho about getting there. In this stage, you as a leader should be enthusiastic and work to keep people’s energy going. However, don’t act like a Pollyanna. Let your team know that this change is not a cure-all, but is a great step forward for the organization and has tremendous potential. This period of time is fun and exciting and you and your team should enjoy it! The energy you experience here will help you through the next stage.
Reality always has a way of tempering our enthusiasm, which is why Informed Doubt always follows Uninformed Certainty. This is where our “rose-colored glasses” get dirtied with annoying practicalities and the challenges of implementing change. Doubt and pessimism creep in. In response, people may resist in one of two ways: with overt resistance (openly pushing back against the change) or covert resistance (undermining the change process more subtly).
As a leader, you need to be in the trenches with your people during this stage. Listen to their concerns, remind them about the positive reasons for making the change and emphasize the long-term possibilities that excited them initially. Don’t get angry or frustrated with team members who are expressing overt resistance; rather, listen with empathy and gently challenge their resistance while affirming them as an individual. Covert resistance is, by its nature, harder to identify, so be certain to talk one-on-one with people or in small groups to hear their feedback and address their concerns.
There is another twist on Informed Doubt that you need to be aware of: you yourself may be going through a period of pessimism right along with your team members. If that is the case, it is important that you do not process your own doubts or concerns in front of your team. Doing so will undermine their belief in the positive nature of the change, hurt your credibility, and prolong the time that people spend in Informed Doubt. Your role is always to help your team to move forward on their change journey.
To cope with your personal “bump in the road,” find a third party whom you can use as a sounding board for your internal thoughts and feelings. This could be a colleague, a spouse, a friend, a mentor, or a coach. It is normal and natural to go through this stage, so do not resist or deny it. Just handle it “behind the scenes” so you can be positive and encouraging when you are “on stage” in front of your team. You can always tell your team, “I feel some of the same concerns that you do” (this is valuable authenticity), but then follow it up with “here is how I am dealing with it.”
With perseverance, we emerge from Informed Doubt into the welcome stage of Realistic Hope. People shift from doubt to hope as they gain a more balanced view of what the change requires of them, what it gives them, and how it plays out in the real world as opposed to their imaginations. Keep up the encouragement here: reinforce positive accomplishments and point to how close you are as a team to achieving the desired future state. The finish line is in sight!
The final stage is Informed Certainty. After becoming accustomed to functioning in the new state and experiencing success in it, people are able to affirm the benefits of where they are and how the new state has advantages for the future. Don’t let this stage go by unrecognized and unrewarded! Discuss what you have learned and how you can use the experience to do even greater things going forward. Acknowledge individual and group accomplishments. Celebrate with your team! You have come through with flying colors.
Positive change will go most positively when you intentionally engage with your team at every stage. Listening, encouraging, educating, challenging, and celebrating all play a part in moving people from the present state to the future state. This is one of your most important roles as a leader and ultimately a very rewarding one!