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The challenges of leadership in times of change

Business is not physics, and people are not fundamental particles whizzing around inside the LHC, subject to largely immutable laws. If anything, business is governed by psychology, because everything depends on the unpredictable behaviour of human beings.” Andrew Saunders, Management Today

Whether or not the need for transformational change is caused by disruptive innovation, or by other political, environmental, social or economic developments, leaders won’t necessarily know the full extent of their characters – for better or worse – until they are truly tested and transformational change is by it’s nature, Truly Testing.

A typical scenario in the preparation for change goes like this:

  • A major development triggers the need for large-scale change.
  • Senior management disappear to off-site meetings.
  • Consultants in grey suits with brief cases may appear.
  • Soon there is an announcement.
  • The Communications team go into full flow to steady the troops and to create messages designed to cascade the need for, and the benefits of, the change.

Depending on how long it’s taken to get to this point, and how ‘leaky’ the organisational culture is, people may have heard rumours, have begun ‘catastrophising’ or seeing the opportunity for ‘land-grabbing’.  Colleagues who may have worked peacefully together for years may find themselves on different sides of the fence. Gossiping around water coolers reaches a peak.

The original Grief Cycle model as devised by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has been adapted many times to apply to organisational change.

While the senior team may have had the time to work through their own version of the Grief cycle, and may have had the benefit of a coach to work with, they often don’t recognise the need for their people to have support working through the emotions that change can trigger.

It’s not unusual to have an entire organisation at different stages of the model, with leaders looking to the future, while their people stay stuck in anger or denial without support.

So here are 5 tips for recognising the various stages of the cycle and some responses:

1. Shock – often people express feelings of being numb, they might feel unable to cope, they may have difficulty completing routine tasks.  They may recast the past as a ‘golden era’ while expressing fears that ‘life will never be the same.

Response: Allow them to ‘react’   Give them time to talk and explore what might happen, but challenge any wilful ‘misinterpretation’.  Help them to concentrate on using their strengths to get them through the change.  Be positive, but avoid negative reassurance.

2. Denial – sometimes people decide to cut themselves off from their emotions altogether.  They might say things like ‘it won’t affect me’ or ‘it’ll be fine’.  They might cling to business as usual, longing for the day that it’s all over, and may try to minimise the situation to make it insignificant.

Response: Help them to identify any contrary information if it’s available.  Challenge discrepancies in the story they create.  Discuss the change and it’s purpose.  Help them to identify what is required and what is non-negotiable.   Allow them to off-load, but with a focus on finding a solution.

3. Anger – this can manifest as overt anger/aggression, but also as anxiety/depression.  They may act defiantly, accuse the company of not caring.  They may stop participating, work to rule or start making excuses or blaming, shirking their responsibilities.

Response: listen, acknowledge their feelings.  Encourage them to stay involved.  Help them identify positives and /or potential benefits.  Don’t tell them to change, or pull themselves together.  Use an appropriate model to discuss where they are now and what might help them to move on.

4. Acceptance and Exploration: at this stage, there may be confusion or even some chaos.  As a result there may be some experimenting, and the start of acceptance of new working practices.  People may start showing signs of enthusiasm, and may well be seeking reassurance, while still being easily disheartened.

Response: Help them identify priorities, and facilitate the finding of short term wins.  Encourage their ideas and experimentation of these.   Help them not to be overcritical of themselves, and celebrate any positive developments.

5. Building Commitment: People may now want to talk more, and take ownership.  They may start persuading others and wanting to co-operate/co-ordinate activities.  There may well be a visible increase in energy.

Response: Help them to create long term goals.  Encourage team building activities, particularly if new teams have been created as a result of the change.  Help them to keep looking forward and encourage further progress.  Identify the positive effects of responding to the change.

Leaders often talk about Passion.  Sometimes the quality that’s needed most to navigate change successfully is Compassion.


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