It used to be said there were two certainties in life: death and taxes.
In modern business life, you can add a third to the list: change.
During these turbulent times of cost-cutting and radical changes to business models and structures, leaders and managers play a vital role as communicators, role models and change agents.
Here’s a quick summary of 10 key points that feature in our training of leaders and managers in companies going through change:
1. When the going gets tough, the tough get visible
During busy times it can be tempting to stop communicating with your team. Instead, when the going gets tough, you should be more visible, stepping up communication and engagement. Keep your door open, eat in the restaurant, walk the floor, ask people how they’re doing.
2. Set the context
You’ll often need to paint the big picture first, so be clear about the reason for and benefits of the change. Sometimes the reason can seem too distant from frontline people who then have difficulty relating to it. So be prepared to show the consequences of not implementing the change – e.g. loss of productivity or job losses. But do justice to the benefits too because different people are motivated by different things. Whatever you do, make it relevant for your people. And if you have to communicate really challenging news such as job losses, get straight to the point – most people really appreciate that.
3. Manage people through the change curve
When change is happening, people typically go through a series of responses. First they deny the change, then they actively resist it, next they explore it, and finally they commit to it. Let people know you understand that change can be stressful, although be wary of saying something like: “I know what you’re going through”; you don’t. And remember: Not everyone works through the change curve at the same speed. So, get close to your people, listen for the telltale signs, and adjust your one-to-one dialogue accordingly.
4. Be honest about bad news
If change has negative consequences, there’s no value in trying to hide it. Don’t sugar-coat the message. Your team will see through it straight away and it will reflect badly on you and the organisation.
5. Fill the vacuum
We all crave communication and engagement, especially during times of change. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, if there is nothing to announce good or bad, you’ll just say nothing. Left to their own devices, people make stuff up. So if there are no new developments to announce, tell them that, and indicate the process for letting them know when there is progress.
6. Go slowly – get there quicker
When giving people news they might find upsetting or concerning, slow down to give them a chance to absorb what you are saying.
You know you’re going to get questions from your people once the initial communication has sunk in. So be approachable, available and interested in what your people have to say. And if nobody comes to you, then you go out to them. Silence does not equal acceptance, so get out of your office and walk the floor.
7. Listen to negativity
Staff and colleagues may express negativity. You can be supportive by acknowledging their concerns, listening to, but not encouraging, negative comments or behaviours, and by responding in an empathic way, though always remaining focused on the need for the change.
8. Acknowledge losses
Make and mark symbolic endings to acknowledge losses of people, sites or ways of working. This recognises their clear importance to many colleagues and often helps people to move on and rise to new challenges.
9. Involve and encourage exploration
Involve the whole team and discuss how you will cope with the change together. Ask for their help in finding solutions that will effectively implement the change. Acknowledge each contribution and discuss advantages and drawbacks. Using their ideas will increase commitment to the change – a classic example of engagement by involvement.
As people begin to explore the benefits the change might bring, share them more openly. These ideas might help bring other people along on the journey. But keep an eye on delivering against your objectives. That can often suffer as people get carried away with the possibilities of it all and forget the day job.
10. Big up the little wins
Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a change programme, it feels like you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel (sometimes it even feels like someone has run off with the lightbulb!) Little wins matter in these circumstances – little wins that are important to your team. So keep a sharp eye out for them, and publicise them as heavily as you can.