Leading Change: A Simple Formula of Do’s (And Don’ts!)

Written by on September 15, 2014

At the heart of impactful leadership is the ability to manage change. Especially during times of uncertainty or instability, employees naturally look to their leaders to guide them through. In the midst of the unknown, leaders who employ accessible, open, and honest approaches make a tangible difference in keeping everyone focused. It sounds like common sense, and pretty straightforward. So what’s the part we keep missing?

Hoping to find answers, we asked employees, across multiple organizations and industries, “What’s most important to you during times of change? Over and over, the same words came back: We want Information, Empathy, and Listening. Interestingly enough, when we continued to ask, “What do you receive most often during times of change?” very different words appeared: We get Directives, Avoidance or “Rah Rah” Presentations (those upbeat flashy moments when someone tries to convince us it’s all going to be great, but never really says why).

The discovery here? Leaders were investing lots of time and energy in making change happen, with the right intention of wanting to help employees, but it wasn’t helping at all. It occurred to us that while the need for information, empathy and listening may be common knowledge amongst leaders, it’s not yet common practice.

So how can leaders do what’s most important and avoid the traps? Consider getting back to basics with a few foundational do’s and don’ts:

  • Do Share Information. In the absence of information, people quickly fill in the blanks on their own with speculation, assumptions, worry and gossip. It’s human nature! Be the leader who brings the conversation regularly to the table (instead of the water cooler). Be upfront, consistent and clear about what you know – when you know it. And when you don’t have information, share that fact, with the commitment that you will fill in the blanks as soon as you have it.
  • Invite team members to bring their questions forward. Demonstrate that you’re open to being approached with questions, concerns, and feedback, even if you don’t have all the answers. And when your availability is limited by your own workload and volume of meetings, take the initiative to let your team know the place in your schedule that belongs to them.
  • Don’t avoid the conversation or gloss over the facts. At times, certain information needs to be kept confidential. If that’s true, let your teams know the criteria for what can be shared, and what needs to remain private until changes are complete. Avoid offering false reassurances or 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.
  • Do Show Empathy. Empathy means putting ourselves in another person’s shoes, and understanding what they might be experiencing. Communicate your understanding that change has different impact at different times. We’re not all the same. Practice enquiry about how the uncertainty or change is affecting them and what will help them manage through it.
  • Don’t fake enthusiasm during times of change. We may want to demonstrate a positive attitude, but “rah rah” cheerleading rings false when leaders fail to provide information, context or genuine reasons for change.
  • Do Listen. Employees need opportunities to express their concerns and ask questions. Recognize that some need time to absorb new information before they’re ready to discuss or identify concerns. Ask for feedback about the change process and your effectiveness in communicating throughout. Remember that listening is not a one-time event, but an essential ongoing part of the process.
  • Don’t just give orders. To reduce distractions and keep teams focused on the work, it’s tempting to become more directive. Some believe it’s easier for teams to ‘follow orders’, and maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach until changes are all in place. People going through change often perceive a loss of control, so set direction with them around what can be achieved, and leverage this opportunity to build collaboration, by letting them know their thoughts and opinions matter.

Change leadership is complex. Focus on simple positive practices that bring the greatest return. And when you feel the impact or challenge of change, access resources that support your success, whether it’s coaching, peer support or training.