Change is not easy. As a leader, you know that for a fact. Even change that is for the better is never “bump-free,” as we discussed in a previous blog. Of course, you expect unwelcome changes to be hard on people and prepare accordingly. But what about a change you assume will be received as good news but – to your complete surprise – is viewed as bad news? That can throw you off balance. If you fail to pivot quickly, you can end up prolonging and worsening the change process for your employees, instead of helping them through it.
One Situation, Two Perspectives
Plenty of situations can be perceived from vastly divergent perspectives. For instance, you might promote a star salesman to a management position, only to find that he resents the new duties, perks notwithstanding. You could redefine roles on the leadership team to play to people’s strengths, but discover that one of the individuals does not want to let go of their previous responsibilities. You might open up a new product line and be shocked by a bad attitude on the part of your customer service and support team.
It can really take the wind out of your sails when you are expecting a change to generate excitement, energy, and enthusiasm and instead you see evidence of the opposite. That evidence can be verbal in the form of anger, questioning, or push back. It can be nonverbal as the person’s expression suddenly becomes shuttered, their shoulders tense up, or they abruptly excuse themselves. They might even give you a smile at first, but you soon realize they are deeply unhappy with the change. What do you do then?
Adjusting to the Unexpected
The very first thing you need to do is accept your employee’s perspective. Accept that what you thought was going to be good news has been received as bad news. Don’t be dismissive of the other person’s feelings. Don’t tell them “You shouldn’t feel that way.” People have a right to their emotions and viewpoint. If you have done your job upfront communicating the need for the change and someone still looks upon it as negative, then that is the reality you need to deal with. Accept it.
With that in mind, your next step is to pivot to help your employee. You expected the change to be viewed as positive, and so you prepped yourself accordingly, such as by using the techniques discussed here. You weren’t planning on meeting with resistance. Now, you have to intentionally and decisively call upon an entirely different set of leadership tools.
We recommend that you manage change using the following model based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief. You can find a full discussion of the model in this blog. Here is an overview of the various stages and the key leadership skills you should draw upon:
- Stage 1: Denial. Listen to your employees. You can reinforce the reasons for the change, but do so in the context of active listening.
- Stage 2: Anger. Listen and empathize. Let people vent; don’t interfere unless their anger is destructive.
- Stage 3: Bargaining. Listen to what is being said or asked, but stand firm on the major items.
- Stage 4: Fear. Listen and empathize, acknowledging the person’s fear. Seek to determine the true source of the fear. Increasing communication at this point can help to counter fear because it provides a reality check.
- Stage 5: Depression. Listen and empathize. If the person is acting like a victim, encourage them to take personal responsibility to face the change head on.
- Stage 6: Exploration. Provide opportunities to explore and encourage creative thinking.
- Stage 7: Acceptance. Reward and acknowledge progress.
The Single Most Important Task
Do you see the common thread in most of the stages? You as a leader need to LISTEN. You will be tempted to talk: to convince, to argue, to prove, to cajole, etc. You want your employee to see things the way you see them. Go back to the first step: accept that they don’t see it your way. Most likely, nothing you say is going to convert them to your point of view. So you need to pivot to manage what has unexpectedly become a negative change. And the most important (and hardest) thing you can possibly do at this juncture is to listen.
Listen to the denial and rejection. Listen to the anger and frustration. Listen to the attempts at bargaining (but hold your ground). Listen to the fear and anxiety. Listen to the depression. When you don’t know what to do and negative emotions are flaring up, double down on listening.
You are going to spend a good amount of time listening for days and possibly weeks or even months. Remember: as a leader, you cannot rush your employee through these stages. People almost never skip stages. But through active, empathetic listening coupled with the other skills noted above, you can shorten the duration and intensity of your employee’s change journey. That is your job.
Listening attentively and patiently is not easy, particularly in our fast-paced business world. However, it is the single most important tool you have as a leader to help your people navigate a difficult change and come through successfully on the other side.
Prepare for the Next Change
As you prepare for the next change in your company – whether it is a large-scale change or something as routine as a promotion – bear in mind that people’s views of that change may differ from your own. Your responsibility as a leader is to meet people where they are. If you find yourself surprised by a response you did not expect, remember to bring out your most powerful leadership skill: listen.