Leading the Human Side of Change

By: Beverly Feldt, Partner, Workplace Interactors
April 24, 2013

If you're a top leader in your organization, you're used to taking the long view. But to create successful change in business, you have to see even further, beyond your plan. You have to see your people, too. Like Stacy and Ryan.

Stacy feels like an earthquake has hit her. She's just learned that her company is dropping the product she’s worked on for more than twenty-five years. Her boss has assured Stacy that her job is safe – but what will that job be? Everything she's used to is about to change. Will she still see the friends she's worked with for years? She knows everything about her old product. Now, will she have to start over and learn something completely new? Coworkers used to come to her for advice. Will she now have nothing to offer them? Stacy has a hundred other questions. But her boss just says, “Get on board. Everything's going to be fine.”

Ryan's depressed, and he's embarrassed about it. He's an information technology specialist, and he's great at his job. But his company is changing. Soon, he'll be expected to be an account executive for his clients, building relationships and keeping them informed about their projects. But Ryan chose his field so that he could immerse himself in writing computer programs, not spend the day jabbering with people. And what if he messes up? Ryan is beginning to lose his self-confidence. He used to enjoy his job. Why does this have to happen to him?

What's happening to Stacy and Ryan? They're both responding normally to the uncertainty, losses, and confusion of change. But the companies they work for are making them feel worse: more isolated, less competent, more fearful, and less productive.

Fortunately, there's a lot that leaders can do to help people through the change process. Number one is to learn about the predictable emotional phases of change, plan for them, and openly acknowledge them.

For example, Stacy is being rocked by a normal sense of grief. Something she's used to and values – the product she works on – is coming to an end. Her expertise and sense of value in her working life may be ending, too, as well as the relationships she enjoys every day. She feels those losses keenly. And in addition, she has a lot of uncertainty about what's coming next, and no one seems to have any answers for her.

How can leaders help her (and her coworkers) through this inevitable difficult period? Here are a few ideas:

  • Talk about the change openly and frequently. Answer as many questions as you can, but be scrupulously honest about what you don't yet know.
  • Keep communication flowing, and make sure it goes both ways – up to the bosses as well as down to the employees.
  • Identify what individuals feel they are losing. Even if you don't feel the same, you can express empathy and understanding.
  • As far as possible, try to give something back to balance what's being taken away. For example, you might ask Stacy to lead a task force regarding the new product, to help restore her sense of control and expertise.

What about Ryan? He's fallen victim to the depression and anxiety of what change expert William Bridges calls “The Neutral Zone.” The old is gone, but the new hasn't really begun. How can you help Ryan now?

  • Reassure people that their negative feelings are a normal part of change. Don't push for high productivity during this time.
  • Stress the purpose of the changes. Help employees see their place in the new situation.
  • Offer training or other group activities. These can help overcome isolation and improve people's sense of competence.
  • Set short-term goals that can be easily met. Everyone needs a sense of achievement during this stressful phase.
  • Encourage people to be open about their concerns, and make sure you address them openly as well.

A final note for top leaders: remember that you've had a lot more time to get used to the idea of change than employees further down the ladder. Give them the time and the support they need to catch up to you.

No matter what changes you have planned, you need Stacy and Ryan to execute them. Take care of them, and they'll take care of business.