Change as a Second Language
I believe that all leaders—at every level, in all industries—would be more effective if they could add a working fluency in change to their resumes. Just as the world traveler is more nimble and better able to navigate with additional languages, today’s work asks us all to be conversational in change.
Most leaders haven’t been trained in change management, and even if they have, they suffer from overload and/or overlapping change to such a degree that they often move into reaction mode. This puts our teams and organizations on the defensive, and we pay a price in lowered employee engagement, increased conflict, bad business outcomes, etc.
I don’t want to suggest that a greatly increased fluency in change work will make organizational change easy, but I have seen countless times over the last 20 years, both as an external consultant and an internal organizational development (OD) professional, that even small gains in this area can have large positive impacts.
MANAGING CHANGE IN A PANDEMIC
I’m writing in the most difficult time of my professional career, and perhaps yours, too. As we all wonder how to homeschool, work remotely, communicate well in new situations, build teams without some of our previous resources, etc., during this pandemic, many people are struggling. If we add to that uncertainty about the future of our particular industry, we have a situation ripe for overload and toxic change. These times are going to call upon us in ways we probably weren’t trained for.
The good news is there is an enormous amount of expertise we can draw from that can help us keep our heads above water, do work we’re proud of, and take care of each other along the way. Even small improvements in the concepts below—especially if they become part of your culture—can ease the pain of change and improve outcomes.
WHAT IS CHANGE?
For our purposes, we can think of change as something that requires something new from us and our organization to be successful. It’s not business as usual. We may need new systems, new strategies, new mindsets, etc., to respond to the situation. For small tweaks, for more of the same (which, by the way, is not always bad—Apple should continue to double down on beautiful design), we don’t necessarily need a high level of fluency in change. Strategy, communication, and leadership usually will suffice.
One major challenge for us all is overlapping changes. We may be fairly stable in some areas while experiencing huge changes elsewhere. Or, for example, we may have a strong brand and products, but are facing 30 percent of our senior leaders retiring in the near term. Currently, we may have a personcentered, engaged culture that has quickly moved to 100 percent virtual work. Usually, there is more than enough change to manage.
An additional key concept is the difference between changes we choose and changes that happen to us. Both require a lot of us, but the latter category puts the pressure on leaders to really focus on the people side of change management.
A KEY FRAMEWORK AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE PRINCIPLES
John Kotter’s framework for change is an excellent one, involving eight steps, including creating urgency, building a coalition, highlighting short-term wins, and removing barriers, but it is most effective with changes that are chosen by the organization. For more information, visit: https://www.kotterinc.com/8-steps-process-forleading-change/
As I’ve worked with organizations, I’ve seen that the work of change consultant William Bridges can be particularly helpful. He notes that leaders often focus their efforts at change management on the structures, reporting lines, and the tasks at hand and/or the future vision. Bridges articulates the distinction that change is what happens to the organization, while transition is what people do to make sense of the changes. Very often, the latter is given little or no attention, which can lead to poor change adoption and other unintentional harm. Change is people work. Bridges describes transition as having three phases: Endings, The Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings.
In my experience, we often don’t do much to acknowledge these states, and we often don’t have any language for the Neutral Zone at all.
FEATURES OF THE NEUTRAL ZONE
- Increased anxiety
- Increased absenteeism
- Old weaknesses re-emerge
- Overload and confusion
- Increased organizational vulnerability
- Potential for new norms/approaches
And leaders often misunderstand what they see.
BRIDGES’ 4 ASPECTS OF BEING STUCK:
- Stuck in Disengagement: Seen as withdrawal
- Stuck in Disidentification: Seen as sadness or worry
- Stuck in Disorientation: Seen as confusion
- Stuck in Disenchantment: Seen as anger
One way to understand “resistance to change” in the workplace is to see that some individuals get stuck in the transition process.
WHAT TO DO
Become more fluent in these models and then build a guiding coalition, not just for a single change, but for change in general. Don’t go it alone. Build a team, at multiple levels of the organization, with people who are especially good at strategy, communication, informal leadership, and people skills. Yes, HR, but also your highest Emotional Intelligence (EQ) leader in IT, your front-line worker with great insight, etc.
Become aware that change will always be constrained by how well you care for the people amidst the change. If you don’t communicate, listen, and help them move through the phases of change, you will have an anemic change initiative. If you listen and empathize, you will get key information that can help you course correct, and you dramatically increase people’s buy-in—even if they didn’t choose the direction. I have worked with many skillful leaders whose teams implemented change well, even when they weren’t convinced of the future benefits, because they were treated with empathy in the process. You then have to share the small wins and institutionalize, as Kotter notes, along the way to fully realizing the change.
Read and master Kotter’s and Bridges’ work. Set up a change working group that can help you communicate, gain feedback from the organization, and become your change experts.
If you engage outside consultants, ask them not just to help you with change strategy and management, but to spend some time with a key group of formal and informal leaders building their capacity for future change.
Evangelize these models. Employees have expertise in their own experiences of change, but these frameworks—especially Bridges’—can help them “make sense” of the change and normalize the difficulty of it. It also can help to move them into new behaviors and mindsets.
Create spaces for people to be messy. Open forums, informal check-ins, and mini-surveys allow people to process and make sense of change. Rather than slowing things down, this often can speed things up, but skillfully.
Emulate the experts. Watch what organizations that are fluent in change do. Implement afteraction debriefs, feedback sessions throughout the process, and continual process improvement.
If you haven’t already, embrace what Brene Brown calls the “power of vulnerability.” Yes, we need to cast a vision, and focus on what we can control. But we are also all in this together. Admitting that we don’t have it all figured out, and sometimes the future is murky, can be a humanizing thing. It also can invite people to step up, and to help move things into a better future.
Craig Fischer, MA, is a consultant and executive coach. He serves as the director of Leadership and Organizational Development at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane, WA, where he teaches leadership and reflective practice and serves as an internal leadership coach. Contact him via LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/craig-n-fischer/