April 5, 2023
If you think about a change that is happening to you, in some way, right now – how are you feeling? Are you feeling scared, anxious, worried or happy, excited, looking forward to it? The same thing happens with a workplace change. Some people like the old ways of working because they are use to them, feel comfortable, they don’t have to think about it. Whereas others are looking forward to the new ways of working, as they think they are exciting, new and different.
If there is one thing I have learned it is that change is going to happen to us in our personal and professional lives, whether we like it or not. We will change jobs, move home, our organisations will go through a re-structure, we will change teams and build skills and do tasks that we never thought we would do. And then if we think of all the influencing factors on our lives and hence on the changes that are happening to us – the politics between countries or within an organisation, economic fluctuations, energy crisis, social adjustments and re-alignments, technology, systems and processes. The influencing factors are changing at such a fast rate, and yet sometimes not quite fast enough. So how can we lead and manage people through all this, much less get our own heads around it?
Firstly, it is to recognise there is not a one size fits all or a simple answer. Change is an emotional process and experience, regardless of the type of change. So, it takes a level of emotional maturity to actually address, manage and lead in change. And yet the language used around change is typically rational and technocratic. At the same time, to address the emotion, many times the word passion is over-used to such an extent that it loses its power, particularly with a large organisational transformation. Change gets to the guts of being human – there are difficult conversations to be had, and established relationships that may be broken or new ones needed.
Change is an emotional process and experience, regardless of the type of change
As a result of all that, a recognition that everyone is out of their comfort zone, albeit at varying degrees, and as a result a realisation that what people really need during these times is connection, feeling heard, and cared about, i.e. feeling and believing they are understood.
Dealing, managing and leading change can sometimes feel over-whelming and we can struggle to know what to do, much less how we do it.
So as leaders the first thing we need to do is stop, breath and listen. These are the most basic of leadership skills, but how many times have you done it, consciously, at work? When we really take a moment to stop, breath and listen to what is going on around us, what is being said and notice how people are behaving, we many times find the answers to the questions, in which we are seeking. This in turn will help us in leading people in whatever change we are tackling at the time.
Typically, many change projects and programmes start off either in the Board or Business Unit meeting room with an elite team of the usual suspects (and their usual advisers), trying to answer the question: “We need to do something to fix or improve or [insert verb] here.” In doing so, the team members brainstorm or go away individually to think of ‘an answer’, or what they might well think is THE answer, and then report back to the same group of people and together they decide on not only what to do, but most of the time, how to do it as well.
But rarely do they test this out with the people and get an understanding of the impact this may have on them, much less discover whether the answer is the ‘right’ answer. And yet how valuable would that information be before embarking and investing a large amount of resources (people, systems and monies) into a change programme; especially if it ends up being the ‘wrong’ answer.
You don’t have to see the end of the staircase to take the first step
So the second critical step for leaders is to test their theory and find out what people think and feel – what has been coined before as “the voice of the people.” This can be done with surveys, focus groups, team briefings, townhalls – the list is endless. Just imagine, your leader came to you and said we were thinking of doing x, but wanted to know what you think before we decide that is what we are going to do – how valued, empowered, trust-worthy you would feel. Now just imagine if you were that leader how much your staff and “most important asset, your people” would feel about you – that you took the time to ask them what they thought and genuinely asked, not just did it as a tick box exercise. The level of loyalty and pride people would feel and believe in you, would be quite incredible.
Someone said to me the other day, “You don’t [immediately] have to see the end of the staircase to take the first step.” And I agree – the first step, can just be to stop, breath and listen. The second step is to meet some people and ask questions – it is through these simple steps that we can then start to see the ‘end of the staircase’ but we need to take the time to do this. None of us have a crystal ball – we don’t know what or when the next disruptors are going to be or come from, so we need to be resilient and future ready, by remembering the basics and recognising none of us are ‘gurus of all information’ and no one expects us to be the information guru. They do expect us to be human and treat people as people though – because as I have said many times before, “change is about people not rocket science.”
Jennifer Bryan is a published author, speaker and Director of Change and Leadership, who has worked with nearly 40 different organisations across multiple industries. She is also a Non Executive Board Member of the ACMP (Association of Change Management Professionals) UK Chapter. She believes in helping people – in whatever capacity she can – by making sure people are thought of first, last and throughout change projects and programmes. She has created a unique leading change framework, the ABChange Model, and uses her commercial insight to help lead people in change. Jennifer is author of Leading People in Change – A practical guide.