When it comes to change, what’s your style?
For some of us, change is a necessary evil. We’re generally leery of it, preferring the perceived safety of the known—even if we’re not too crazy about it—to the riskiness of the unknown. The people at this end of the change spectrum likely arranged the furniture in their home years ago and have never looked back. For others of us, however, change is invigorating, and we jump at the possibility of trading the familiar for something new and exciting. At this end of the spectrum, you’ll find the “rearrange the furniture at least every six months just to create a different feel to the room” crew. Inherently, we all have different comfort levels with uncertainty, yet despite our natural bent, most of us probably find ourselves landing at different places along the change continuum depending on the circumstances.
As a leader—whether of a team, a small business, a nonprofit, or a larger organization—you know change is an essential part of growth. Maybe growth means redistributing responsibilities and hiring additional staff. Maybe it means implementing new software or changing your marketing strategy. Maybe it even means re-thinking who you are and changing directions.
When it comes down to it, group change is really just individual change on a large scale. Considering often-cited research on organizational change by consulting firm McKinsey and Company indicates only about one third of organizational change efforts are successful, we clearly need a tried and true strategy for successfully leading others through the change process.
So, what determines whether people have a positive or negative attitude toward change?
According to Erika Anderson, author of Change From the Inside Out: Making You, Your Team, and Your Organization Change-Capable, our attitude toward change depends on whether we see change as “difficult, costly, and weird” or “doable, rewarding and normal.“ If we view change in a negative manner, we are likely stuck in thoughts about whether we know how to do what’s required, whether we’ll lose things that are important to us in the process, and how this will ever feel normal and natural. Dwelling on these thoughts, we become stuck in fear and dread. When we see change positively, on the other hand, our thoughts are more likely to be centered on the steps to move forward, the benefits that will result, and the possibilities for a new normal. We then operate in hope and anticipation rather than fear. The key to embracing change, according to Anderson, is making a shift in mindset.
As leaders, our task becomes making this mindset shift ourselves and then helping those we lead shift from viewing change as difficult and resisting it to viewing it as exciting and embracing it. Perhaps the thought of facilitating a mindshift takes you back to the questions of the previous paragraph—feeling like you have no idea where to even begin and questioning whether it’s really doable. We’re not going to pretend that changing someone’s thinking is simple, but we can offer a strategy that has been very effective for us in leading others through transitions.
Where do we begin? At Anna Montgomery and Co, we believe successful change management begins with trust. Trust is the foundation that encourages others to wade into the water of change. It must be cultivated throughout the change process to keep others engaged, and it ensures changes that are made actually last. Let’s take a look at some trust-building moves you can make as you lead people through change.
Build Understanding to Prepare People for Change
Sometimes in our effort to get things done, we may not take enough time to think about how we will communicate changes. What’s more, we may often present changes and expect others to embrace them quickly, forgetting the process we went through to get to the point of embracing change ourselves.
One way to build trust with those you’re leading is to proactively dispel their fears by clearly communicating not only what is changing, but also why change is needed and how this change will further your mission. Bring those you’re leading along on the same path that led you to the conclusion that change would be beneficial. Let them know what you observed, what your thoughts were, what data you analyzed, and what options you considered along the way. Paint a picture of how you see these changes positively impacting your organization.
While you are communicating the benefits of the change, honestly acknowledge any challenges that you foresee. Bringing your internal thought process into the open will allow others to see how deeply you’ve considered the issue, not to mention it will proactively answer many of their questions and make them more likely to embrace your conclusion.
Though these steps will go a long way to building trust with your audience, you can strengthen trust even further by giving people a chance to voice concerns and ask questions, whether through one-on-one conversations or group meetings. As you listen well, acknowledging rather than dismissing concerns, others will feel heard and valued, and they will know you are reasonable and approachable.
Prepare a Plan to Equip People for Change
Once you’ve communicated the “what” and the “why” of the upcoming changes, it’s time to begin to focus on how the changes will be made. One of the easiest ways to build trust with your followers as you move into this next phase of the change process is to develop an overarching plan with objectives to be met and a timeline that shows the sequence in which they’ll happen. Not only does a clear plan assure everyone knows what success looks like, but it also makes the changes feel more doable and gives those you’re leading confidence in moving forward.
While a leader creates an initial plan to use as a spring-board, you can build trust with your team by allowing them to be a part of the decision-making process and have a say in the plan. Acknowledging the abilities of others and inviting their input will affirm for them that they are a valuable part of the team. Additionally, they are likely to feel more invested in the change effort and experience a sense of ownership in a successful outcome.
Even when the plan is in its “final” form, seeing the plan as flexible and emphasizing this with your team will help everybody relax and embrace the process. Making changes will be a lot more fun when the journey is viewed as a learning process rather than a bull’s eye that must be hit spot-on.
Offer Tools to Support People and Sustain Change
When it’s time to actually work your plan, you can build trust with your team by keeping the question, “What will people need to be successful?” at the forefront of your thinking and then taking action to provide those resources. While it might be natural to think of tangible tools to support people, don’t forget the importance of providing intangible, emotional support tools as well.
As change happens, it’s normal that people might begin to feel overwhelmed. Facing new tasks, learning new skills, and forming new habits can be unexpectedly exhausting. Often, we don’t even realize how much we rely on familiar patterns throughout our work days. Remember, you want people to feel these changes are “doable, rewarding, and normal.”
Having regular check-ins with team members is one way to keep tabs on how your team is feeling. Making the effort to connect regularly with people throughout change implementation will take trust to all new levels. This can take the form of an automated online question prompt or two that’s delivered by email and filled out by the employee each week, or an in-person meeting at whatever interval seems appropriate.
Regardless of what method works best for your team, you’ll want to be engaged enough with your people to know what they’re feeling and be proactive in providing the training, mentors, and resources to support them. Since it takes time for new habits to replace old ones, celebrating the small wins will keep engagement high and help you build momentum. To further encourage everyone, watch for instances where your new ways of operating are directly tied to the success you are experiencing, and be sure to share those with the whole team.
Without a doubt, leading others through change can have its challenges. As a leader who bears the weight of responsibility, it can be easy to become so focused on completing tasks efficiently, staying on-budget, or carrying out the mission that you forget your people. Keeping change people-focused and injecting trust-building moves into every stage of the process will go a long way to making sure people have the understanding, plan, and support they need to see change as “doable, rewarding, and normal” and embrace it.