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Smooth transition

by Erika Andersen
Indian Management January 2022

When contemplating a change, leaders should ensure they get inputs from people in the organisation who have expertise in the areas most affected, so you can be realistic about the time, effort, and resources required.

Years ago, I was in a meeting when my client, a senior sales leader, told her folks about a major change that was going to happen in their organisation. They were switching to a new CRM system, which would have a significant impact on all of them and their people. There was a lot of headshaking, sighing, and eye-rolling (the company had a history of being bad at making change), and I watched, surprised, as the boss just blew right past all these clear indications of discomfort. She said a few things about how she had faith in their ability to do new things, whatever-whatever, and then she simply changed the subject. Everyone was unusually subdued for the rest of the meeting, and she did not seem to notice that, either.

When the meeting broke up, I pulled her aside, noted what I had seen, and asked why she chose not to acknowledge people’s reactions. Her response? “They just like to complain, but they’ll be fine—they’ll get with the programme.”

Pretend change is easy…at your peril
Sadly, many leaders take this approach to change, ignoring people’s hesitation and discomfort in the face of change. And then they are surprised when the change either takes much longer than anticipated or does not yield the hoped-for benefits. This erodes the leader’s credibility and makes it likely that people will dig in their heels even harder when the next change comes along.

So why do leaders do this?

  • Wishful thinking
    As leaders, too many of us believe that if we tell our folks that, “this change will be easy,” it will keep them from worrying and even that it will keep them from experiencing the change as difficult. It is a kind of magical thinking that does not help anyone. Imagine you were going on a road trip, and you asked a travel blogger who knew the route what it was like. If they said “Oh, it’s a great, simple trip—beautiful scenery,” and you then experienced days of traffic jams and desolate countryside…how would you feel about that person—and about the trip? You can tell them the genuine, positive stuff, too—the benefits you believe the change will bring, and the support you will give them to make the change (needed tools and training, new processes). In other words, provide balanced insight into what the change will require and what it will yield.
  • Not knowing what’s involved
    Some leaders think change is going to be easy because they simply have no idea what is involved. Almost 20 years ago, I was working with the CEO of a media company who wanted to start a streaming service. He was not wrong: he saw where the future of the industry was headed and he wanted to go there. But because it had been years since he was involved in the details of the business and because he did not really understand the new technology, he was convinced it could all happen in a few months. The first time he said that in a meeting, I thought the COO and the CTO were going to pass out—they both had a much better idea of what this change would require, and they knew his goals were wildly unrealistic. Fortunately, he was an open guy, and they were able to help him see what was really involved.

    When contemplating a change, be sure to get inputs from people in the organisation who have expertise in the areas most affected, so you can be realistic about the time, effort, and resources required.
  • Selective amnesia
    Most leaders, by the time they are tasked with communicating a change to their folks, have had weeks or months to wrap their heads around the change. And generally, when they first heard about it, they would have had concerns and reluctance, too. So, they asked their questions, thought about it, gradually came to terms with it, and accepted it. But somehow, they forget they have gone through that process—and they expect their folks to magically be completely open to the change the first time they hear about it!
    Remember, your folks need to go through the same process you went through: they need to have time to think about the change, ask questions, understand why it is happening and what it will mean for them. Their initial hesitation does not mean they are ‘risk-averse’ or ‘change-resistant’—it just means they are having the standard human response to change (as you did). Remember what you went through and support your folks as they go through the same things.
    And if you are one of those rare folks who are comfortable with big change, and you did not go through hesitation and discomfort when first hearing about the change you are about to share with your folks, then I would counsel remembering that you are unusual, and that most people are not as comfortable with change as you are. Remind yourself that they are going to need more time and support to accept and make the change than you did.

    Simply listening to your folks’ concerns and questions, and taking in their feedback and insights, will reduce their unease and help them feel included and engaged.

  • Two powerful antidotes
    I have seen all three of these things happen—and sometimes I have seen the same ones happen multiple times in a single organisation. Leaders can be remarkably resistant to learning from their mistakes about change. So, how can you keep yourself from doing these things that make change even more challenging than it needs to be?

    First, listen. Sincere, open- minded listening is the single most valuable skill for a leader in change. Simply listening to your folks’ concerns and questions, and taking in their feedback and insights, will reduce their unease and help them feel included and engaged (as against being victimised and dismissed). In addition, you will get valuable information about what the change will require, how to make it easier for them, and how to increase the likelihood of success.

    Second, manage how you talk to yourself about the change and about your folks’ reaction to it. Your negative self-talk about these topics can easily become a self- fulfilling prophecy. Instead of thinking things like “This will be a piece of cake” and “My team hates change,” shift to more neutral, hopeful thoughts like “I don’t know yet what this change will require; we need to find out” and “My team needs some time and information to understand and accept this change.”

    Doing these two things will help you navigate even major changes more easily— and will support you and your team to become ever more change-capable in this world of non-stop change.

Erika Andersen is founding partner, Proteus International. She is author, Growing Great Employees; Be Bad First; and Change from the Inside Out: Making You, Your Team, and Your Organization Change-Capable; and host of the podcast The Proteus Leader Show.

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