5 must dos + pitfalls to avoid when it comes to leading change

Change is the only constant; it’s a cliché because it’s true. If you feel like the rate of change in your organisation is accelerating, you’re not imagining it. The research now supports it.

In 2022, employees experienced an average of ten planned enterprise changes – things from restructures, to culture transformations, to technology switches. And, no surprises – we’re hitting a wall when it comes to tolerating all this change. Where employee willingness to support enterprise change sat at 74% in 2016, this figure has plummeted in recent years down to just 43% willingness to support change. This comes, in large part, from many organisation’s failure to lead change well.

There’s no doubt that leadership is challenging when things are shifting around you – so, this week, I’m sharing some of the most common ‘must do’s’ and pitfalls to avoid when leading change.

DO:

  1. Share information.There will be times when you can’t share all of the information related to the change, or when it’s impossible to know all the answers. But make a point of sharing as much information with your team as you can. It’s human nature to fill in the gaps – and we tend to jump to the worst conclusions. Our brains are hard-wired towards that tendency. In your communications, be upfront, consistent and as clear as you can. And do this face-to-face (in person or virtually) with your team as often as you can.
  2. Show empathy.Change can be hard. It involves a good dose of fear and loss. The best way to show empathy is to allow space for people to share their fears, both with you individually and also as a team. Often people just want to be heard. Listening and paraphrasing is your best friend, and a leadership superpower when done well, here.
  3. Help them face reality.More often than not, if you’re a middle manager, there are some things you can control with regards to the change, and others you can’t. Your job is to help explain the reason for change and to help your team focus on what’s within their control. Along with a healthy dose of “what does support from me look like for you during this change?”
  4. Build a case for change.Nobody gets excited about change for change’s sake. As one of the world experts on change, John Kotter says in his book Leading Change, you’ve got to create a burning platform for change to help people realise they need to move from where they are to where they need to be. How can you create a business case for change? Why should they? What are the benefits? What are the consequences to them of inaction?
  5. Double down on trust building.Trust is the foundation of high team performance. During times of change, it’s important to focus your attention EVEN MORE on building trust in the group. Demonstrate vulnerability if it’s helpful to the team. Be honest, follow through on your promises, create space for people to share their fears and concerns in a safe environment without fear of reprimand. Keep confidences.

DON’T:

  1. Ignore resistance.Work with it. Meet it. Allow it to be voiced and then explore ways for your team to work positively with what is within their control. Ask them, “What IS within our power in terms of positive action in this situation?”
  2. Offer false reassurancesor vague statements like, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” If you’re uncertain about what to say, ask your team what’s important to them.  Be careful about overpromising and under-delivering. People’s bullshit monitor will be especially finely-tuned during a change process.
  3. Just give orders.If people seem to be resisting change and dragging their heels during change, it’s tempting to become more directive. This can be counterproductive. It increases your chances of people digging their heels in further or demonstrating passive-aggressive behaviour. There will be some non-negotiables, so you can make those clear but, wherever possible, see this as an opportunity to build collaboration, by letting your team know that their thoughts and opinions matter.
  4. Be a panicky Susan.We can be a bit like a herd of elephants when it comes to catching the mood. It’s called emotional contagion. Daniel Goleman had a great quote when he said:When my mind is full of anger, other people catch it like the flu.” It’s your job to portray a calm and positive ‘we can do this’ persona. You might be feeling more stressed, or be experiencing challenges with the change yourself, so do what you need to do to put your own oxygen mask on. Talk to your boss, offload to an executive coach or mentor. Take care of yourself so you can show up in the best way possible to lead your team through the change in a way that if you were looking back on, you’d be proud of. Calm begets calm.

This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a starting point of the things that I have seen work well – and a few I’ve seen impact the situation very poorly – when organisations are going through change and transitions.

I’d love you to build out this list further. What have you got to add to this list of do’s and don’ts?

1 Comment

  1. George Buchanan on March 4, 2024 at 9:19 pm

    Perfectly timed message for me – thank you Suzi. I’m about to start a new director role leading an organisation through a business recovery plan. I meet the team this week prior to starting and needed to be clear in my mind on what kind of things I’d like to hear from them when they share their approaches.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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