Change is coming. If your business or team isn’t in the midst of change already, then get ready: it’s right around the corner.
Change is demanding. As a leader, you have the power to shorten the duration and intensity of the chaos and the mess. Here’s how!
Look at the Roadmap
It’s one thing to know the final destination you want to reach; it’s another entirely to understand the route that will take you there. William and Susan Bridges, experts in change management, provide a roadmap for change that outlines four distinct stages. By knowing what lies ahead, you can prepare for it. The four stages of transition are:
1. Denial. When first confronted by change, people experience shock and questions abound:
- Concern: “How will this impact me?”
- Worry: “Do I still have a job?”
- Confusion: “What are my new responsibilities?”
2. Emotion. As shock wears off, emotions kick in – particularly the negative ones:
- Fear: “I might lose my job!”
- Frustration: “Why do we have to do this?”
- Cynicism: “This is never going to work.”
3. Transition. Over time, the negativity begins to be balanced by positivity:
- Hope: “Maybe this is going to work.”
- Acceptance: “I get it; let’s go.”
- Curiosity: “Is that a light at the end of the tunnel?”
4. Excitement. This is the reward for persevering through the first three steps:
- Relief: “We made it!”
- Enthusiasm: “This is good for me and the company.”
- Trust: “We’re headed in the right direction.”
As a leader, accept that your employees will go through all four of these stages. You can’t take shortcuts, but you can accelerate the journey and make it easier on everyone by planning well for the trip. Let’s take a look at what that entails.
Counteract Denial with Information
In the initial Denial stage, people have questions. They are afraid. They are confused. They need information and they need a lot of it. If you don’t give them the facts, they will fill in the gaps with assumptions and falsehoods and the rumor mill will start its diabolical work.
Countless change initiatives fail due to the lack of a comprehensive communication plan. John Kotter in Leading Change states that leaders consistently under-communicate the vision for change by a factor of 10. In other words, if you think you’ve done a good job communicating, you have probably barely scratched the surface of what people really need to know and understand.
Plan to hold town halls, send out updates and reminders, schedule regular team meetings, and engage in one-on-one conversations. Do absolutely everything you can to keep people informed. Answer the what, why, when, where, who, and how that people want to know. Be prepared to repeat this information so frequently you could say it in your sleep. You simply cannot over-communicate during a change initiative.
Engage Emotion with Support
Ironically, if you do a great job communicating information to your employees, your reward is that they respond by entering the stage of Emotion. They get riled up, angry, upset, and cynical. Good times!
You may be tempted to get defensive at this juncture. After all, you’ve been bending over backward to communicate the reasons for the change, how it will take place, and the benefits that will come from the change. You might feel like your people have been ignoring you or are running roughshod over you.
Hang in there and keep your own emotions in check. This is a normal and natural response from employees and it will pass. It will pass faster and less painfully when you give serious emotional support to your people. That support is best shown through active listening. Ask open-ended questions, use paraphrasing and reflection statements, and take nothing personally. Provide employees with ways they can offer feedback and vent their emotions, such as through open forums, focus groups, team meetings, and private conversations. Demonstrate your willing and patient support until your people work out their feelings.
Facilitate Transition with Structure
Once people have the opportunity to process their emotions, they enter the Transition stage. This can be a confusing stage since people are all over the place. Positive emotions are beginning to emerge, but negative ones are still present. Questions remain, but hope is taking shape. Some people accept the change while others are skeptical.
Structure is critical in this stage. As emotions shift and settle, prepare to communicate with absolute clarity the roles that people now have, their responsibilities, who they are accountable to and what they are accountable for, the new processes and policies, etc. Structure helps people to find their footing and regain their stability.
Keep in mind that change is chaotic and people don’t like chaos. Your employees want to find the “new normal.” They desire regularity and predictability. They crave the comfort of coming to work, doing their job, and doing it well. In essence, they would like to get down to “business as usual” – but to do so, they need to know what “business as usual” looks like. That is what you provide when you give people healthy structure.
Increase Excitement with Reinforcement
You are close to your final destination, but the journey isn’t over yet! As people enter the Excitement stage, there is a sense of relief and enthusiasm. Trust is high as people see the value of change and settle into new ways of working. As a leader, you need to intentionally practice reinforcement to solidify the change in your people and your business.
Reinforcement includes positive feedback, celebration, recognition, and motivation for all the ego-level needs. Don’t skimp on your efforts here! Your people have come through a lot: change initiatives often take 12 to 24 months. That is a long time, and reinforcement is essential to let people know they have done a great job and that their commitment to the change has been worth it.
Gear Up for the Next Change
Becoming skilled at leading people through these four stages will reduce the duration and intensity of the chaos and mess that accompany change initiatives. That is good for the business and good for each and every person in your company. And you will need these skills again, because if there’s one thing that is a constant in business, it is change!