7 essentials for guiding employees through change

Adapting to new methods, managers and hierarchies—or to the loss of beloved colleagues—can be traumatic. Here’s help in navigating those new waters, starting with the key factor: empathy.

As a business speaker, I talk to groups a great deal about the issues surrounding change.

The topic is always front and center—from advancements in technology and the obsolescence of older business approaches to the more personal issue of how best to absorb and respond to uninvited change.

It helps me to be reminded regularly of how personal this issue is, and those reminders often come during post-speech one-on-ones as people share with me their own change issues.

We all are vulnerable. It is easy to depersonalize change or to view it as an abstract concept easily dispatched by following a list of suggestions, but life is not that easy.

Fresh from a round of recent engagements, I pass along these reminders of how personal change is and how poorly we leaders often perform in guiding our people through the fog.

Anecdotes from people living through change:

  • We are constantly told we have to change in our firm, but we are never told why beyond costs and profits. If the leaders would share more about the problem, I believe that all of us could help identify solutions. Instead, we worry about our jobs and what’s next.
  • My job has changed three times in the past year, and every time it came as a surprise. I had no say in the role I was assigned, and I have no idea what this means for my career in this firm.
  • My department was just consolidated with another group. I like the people, but none of us know what we are supposed to stop or start doing now that we are one group.
  • We are worried. The only reason our sales have grown is because our competitors are either exiting the business or going out of business. Everything is changing, yet we don’t seem to have a strategy. Most of us are looking for new jobs.
  • My old firm went out of business. Basically, the entire industry has been either outsourced or replaced by software. My best friend at work was so distraught over the sudden ending to a firm she had been a part of for 20 years, she had to be hospitalized for depression.

The comments above are from people in very different situations, yet they all have one thing in common—their vulnerability and feelings of helplessness in the face of uninvited and unanticipated change. The leaders and managers of the respective firms have exacerbated the situations by failing to offer context, guidance and even the least expensive option, empathy.

Neurophysiologists reference the S.C.A.R.F. model (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) when discussing the impact of change and our response options. If the situation trips the threat meter for any of these issues, it triggers our fight-or-flight responses, pushing logical thinking to the back of our brains. In too many firms, leaders pluck those strings in the wrong way, evoking the worst possible emotional notes from employees.

With proper engagement, communication and genuine empathy, leaders at all levels can easily improve their handling of and results from change initiatives and reduce the human toll considerably.

7 actions that leaders must take when guiding change:

1. Show respect for your employees by providing advanced and in-depth context for internal or strategy changes. The Navy SEALs focus on clarifying both “commander’s intent” and “endstate” to ensure that everyone that understands the mission purpose and the expected outcome, so they can plan and proceed accordingly.

2. Give people a voice in how changes will be implemented. You show respect for your employees when you trust them to implement the needed change(s). They become invested in the process, and you gain their best efforts, not their fight-or-flight responses.

3. Solicit ideas that could minimize or eliminate the need for adverse changes. I have marveled at teams that have rallied to cut costs, identify new ways of operating and even voluntarily taken pay cuts to eliminate the short-term need for layoffs. Don’t assume your team members won’t have some great ideas.

4. Teach people about the business drivers behind change. As the world evolves, strategies must shift, and though the old way was successful, it might not fit in the emerging environment. Many of us operate with the “It has worked for us before, why do we have to change now?” mentality when faced with having to adapt. Context and education are crucial in such situations.

5. It’s a process, not an event. The change process must start, not end, with the announcement. Set up feedback loops and afford those implementing the change(s) an opportunity to adjust and improve on the fly.

6. Answer the burning question. Recognize and address the No. 1 issue on everyone’s mind: “What does this mean for me?” Strive to answer it as early as possible, or you’ll invite fear to the party.

7. Don’t shoot yourself in the credibility foot. I once observed a management team implement layoffs and then immediately head off for a “planning retreat” at a posh golf resort. They would have been much better off restricting their travels to the very visible conference room on the factory floor and then buying their food at the “roach coach” patronized by factory workers during breaks and at lunchtime.

It is easy to talk about change, but the talk should never be divorced from the reality that this issue affects people on a deep, personal level. As a leader, you have a great deal of power to help everyone navigate change without triggering fear, fight or flight. It is time to raise your game on guiding change.

After guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership as a senior strategy and marketing executive, Art Petty now serves clients as a management team and executive coach. Additionally, he regularly serves as a graduate management educator at DePaul University. A version of this article originally appeared on ArtPetty.com.

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