Change: The unspoken fear every leader faces

It staggers me how so many leaders fail to factor into their plans the natural human resistance to change.

Change: The unspoken fear every leader faces

It staggers me how so many leaders fail to factor into their plans the natural human resistance to change.  Instead, they take to their podiums and hold forth on the “tough times” (as if none of us had noticed).  They nod sagely and proclaim that substantial savings have to be made with tough decisions coming shortly.   The audience looks at each other in panic and barely hears the final part of the speech when their leader has moved on to demanding people do better.

It never seems to occur to these leaders that the people they have left behind, now assessing their peers and rating their chances of surviving redundancy, are in no fit state to perform to usual standards, let alone up their game.   We humans have simple needs to achieve our happiness, and above all, we want to feel safe.   

The unknown still causes many of us anxiety, just as it did to our cavemen ancestors.  A certain amount is exciting:  what an exotic travel destination will look like, even what you might have for dinner that night.   But an unknown component in the future that has the power to completely change our lives? 

Not so popular.  

Part of this is a control thing.  We, not unreasonably, feel powerless and unsettled that the brewing change is something we have zero control of.   

Every piece of our life could be affected, from our routines to friends and bank accounts.   Even our homes may be at risk.  Suddenly, we don’t know if we will have a job or if we will be able to find another job.  We are lost, and our confidence flies out of the window.  Everything that felt safe and familiar is now dangerous territory.

In the aftermath of the announcement, senior management look fraught, careering in and out of meetings, leaving everyone else to get on with the job of upping their game.  But the reality is that everyone else is paralyzed by fear, and all cohesive culture fled.

But for the want of a nail.  

I have seen so many leaders take this approach.  Of course, they need to make changes, never more so than in uncertain times.   But in using a combination of unspecified terror with demands for improvement, they have blown up any hope of a successful outcome.  Leaders may have the final say over someone’s livelihood, but there is never any excuse for making people feel powerless.

Communications need to be clear and needed.  There is no place for vague horror.   Instead, ask yourself the point of sharing the threat before knowing what that threat will truly mean.  If, for some reason, you feel it is, set out a clear timeline for when more exact information will become available.  And update people regularly. 

Change needs to be introduced in bite-sized, clear chunks.  Tough times and substantial savings could mean 90% of the workforce being out of a job, or no new hiring. Any announcement must have clarity.  Acknowledge to everyone that change is difficult.  Use empathy to pull everyone together.  

Both leader and management should focus on protecting the culture of the team.  Familiar routines are a big help in this.  Tempting though it may seem, make sure all regular routines and meetings are kept up.  Don’t give in to the temptation of wild ideas on re-organization.  Let people draw strength from some part of their lives being business as usual.  And celebrate the good of the company and the wins that people achieve even more that you would normally.

Instead of icing the cake with demands to do better, focus on the positives that could come out of the future;  the determination to carry the company forward, and offer growth and development within that to see off the competition.

Pull in everyone you can think of, from the management team, HR, and counsellors, to be available if people want to talk.  They may not be able to promise job security, but they will be able to help people adjust to the idea of change.  Encouraging people to talk is crucial.  It will help build resilience in the team.  

Get out of that ivory box or leadership.   Tear your hair out in private.  Be visible, calm and positive.   Open the door to your office to one-to-ones, available to all, and truly listen to what people are saying.

Times of change are the real test of a leader.   This is no moment to throw fear around and expect the result will be people giving more.   Be positive, adaptable, and empathetic to create a reassuring, stable environment and a culture of trust and resilience.    Change is part of life, but it can be a time of growth and improvement instead of opening the door to losing every one of the good people you have ever had.

Jan Cavelle
Jan Cavelle

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