Leading and communicating in times of change

Lady Waving Red Flag | Axiom Communications

How to respond to the signals you and your colleagues are sending – to ensure the success of your change programme

If you’ve been in business for long enough to rise to a senior position, you’ll have seen many a change programme come and go. In fact you’ve probably seen the change curve flashed up on screen enough times to drive you round the bend.

You’ll have also noticed that the vast majority of change efforts fail to deliver their anticipated business benefits. Indeed, according to change guru John Kotter, less than one in three change programmes are successful.

Key to improving your chances of success is spotting the tell-tale signals your colleagues are sending you around their acceptance of the change – and then evolve your leadership style to suit, keeping in mind that you are sending signals too.

In this blog I explain what to look for – and what to do about it.

Stages of change acceptance

It is an inconvenient truth that both you and indeed your colleagues will all be at varying stages of acceptance, or advocacy, for any given change effort.

Life would be so much simpler if the entire workforce moved through the stages of change in ‘lock step’. That would make leading them much easier. But they don’t.

Perhaps your colleagues could wear different coloured hats to signal where they are at in relation to a specific change? But they won’t.

Colleagues do however send signals about where they are. You just need to look out for them… and be aware of any you are sending.

Acts of denial in response to change

When a major change is announced, the first response is often one of numbness. The message doesn’t seem to sink in. Nothing happens. People continue to work as usual. Hardly an advert for successful change is it?  You might also spot:

  • Your colleagues being ‘numbed’ by the announcement
  • They might demonstrate total apathy
  • They could be carrying on regardless
  • Normally vocal colleagues may become quiet
  • You might hear them say ‘it will soon be over’ or ‘they tried that years ago, and it didn’t work then’

Think back to your reactions when you first heard about the change. If you’re honest, it is likely you experienced some or all of these reactions, before moving on.

So to help move your colleagues on:

  • Be consistent, authentic and self-aware
  • Reinforce the need for change, explaining the ‘why’
  • Own the change – don’t ‘join the chorus’ with comments like ‘I know it’s tough, but…’
  • Allow colleagues to register their reaction, ideally in one to ones
  • Check for genuine understanding by asking open questions
  • Provide positive feedback on what your people are doing well
  • Don’t expect them to adopt the new ways instantly

All too often we see frustrated leaders who simply ‘can’t understand why their colleagues don’t get it’. They will, in time.

Resistance to change at work

Move on from denial and the next stop on the change journey is resistance. Resistance occurs when colleagues have moved through the numbness of denial and begin to experience self-doubt, anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, fear or uncertainty. Oh joy!

In the resistance stage, productivity dips drastically and the workforce is often upset and negative.

While it is difficult for a leader to allow negative views to be aired openly, this is exactly what helps to minimise resistance. Allowing colleagues to express their feelings and share their experiences make this stage pass more quickly.

People who believe they are the only ones who feel a certain way, or think their reactions are more intense than those of their colleagues, feel better when they learn, through open discussion, that others feel the same.

The sort of evidence of ‘resistance’ to look for with your colleagues includes:

  • Colleagues clearly tired through lack of sleep
  • Anger and upset in a usually calm working environment
  • Colleagues mumbling, moaning and groaning, (but not about the change itself – they’re aware that wouldn’t look good)
  • And watch out for greater levels of sickness or absence

Techniques to move your people on from resistance include:

  • Reinforcing the need for change – this change is going to happen, resistance is indeed futile
  • Allow people to voice their anger
  • Keep your ear to the ground
  • Consider talent retention, your best people may be plotting a new career path
  • Set clear expectations about performance standards – and manage against them
  • Be empathetic, supportive, but be strong
  • Explain what the change ‘means for me’ – your colleague, as an individual

Exploring the new world

Having moved on from denial and resistance, colleagues start to explore the ‘new world’. During the exploration stage, there is an outburst of energy as colleagues turn their attention to the future.

This stage could also be described as one of ‘chaos’, as colleagues try to fathom new responsibilities, work out new ways of relating to one another, discover more about their future prospects and wonder how ‘the change’ will work in practice.

Things to look out for include:

  • People running around like headless chickens, lots of energy, no direction
  • The creation of ‘alliances’ with colleagues going on ‘fact finding’ missions
  • More ‘new ideas’ than you can cope with, and frustration… that no one is listening to ‘my’ idea
  • Colleagues demonstrating an inability to concentrate
  • Colleagues ‘slipping back’ to resistance and denial – and critically, business as usual suffering

Faced with these situations, leaders should:

  • Guide this new found innovation and creativity
  • Provide structure and direction
  • Co-create a common vision of the future
  • Keep everyone fully up to speed on the latest news
  • Schedule frequent meetings and one to ones
  • Focus on quick wins and ongoing delivery of existing goals
  • Get ‘explorers’ talking to people in denial and resistance

A matter of commitment

Having spent time in acts of denial, been part of the resistance at work and explored the new world, colleagues arrive at commitment to, even advocacy for, the new ways of working. Hurrah! Now we need to keep them there.

Colleagues are willing to redefine their objectives and draw up plans to make them work. They are prepared to learn new ways of working together, and to renegotiate roles. Commitment is the stage where colleagues are willing to identify solidly with a new set of goals and be clear about how to reach them.

The sort of evidence of ‘commitment’ to look for in your colleagues includes:

  • Better performance against your change goals
  • Improved contribution per FTE
  • Lower levels of sickness and absence
  • Colleagues able to enthusiastically describe their new role
  • Higher levels of teamwork
  • Greater amounts of social interaction
  • Colleagues becoming champions for change or ambassadoers (and no, that isn’t a typo)

To help drive up and maintain levels of commitment, we recommend you:

  • Empower people – create change agents role models
  • Develop new job accountabilities and objectives and build them into your performance review process
  • Embed and sustain the change by reinforcing the difference it has made
  • Celebrate and publicise the successes you’ve had
  • Recognise the people who have positively contributed
  • Reiterate longer term messages and introduce small changes on an ongoing basis
  • Reflect on and learn from the change – as there will be another one along in a moment – and the first thing people do is deny it!

Modelling the right behaviours

Now you know what people look like when they are working through change, take a moment to reflect on your change journey, as a leader. Odds on you exhibited many of these behaviours before emerging as the ‘champion for change’ you are today. It is as well to remember that, as you coach and lead your colleagues through change.

It is especially important to be self-aware, if in fact you are going through change at the exact same time that your colleagues are – and you’re responsible for delivering it too. That’s a tough ask, but at least you now know what signals you might be sending along the way, unconsciously or otherwise.

The hat you need to wear in front of your colleagues is the one marked commitment – and now you know what you should look like when you are modelling that hat.

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