Leading Change (Before It Leads YOU!!!)

If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living. 

—Gail Sheehy


I think we can all agree that change is hard. Well, guess what? Leading change is even harder! 


There are people in the world whoLearn how to navigate Organizational changes see change as a new adventure and eagerly welcome it (and even actively seek it out). Most of us, though, regard change with some trepidation. We are creatures of habit, and anything that unsettles our existing practices and attitudes can be . . . well . . . scary!


Learning how to navigate change in one’s own life is a life lesson everyone has to work through eventually. But knowing how to help others navigate change is a rare skill. And when those “others” include employees, colleagues, and even entire organizations, leading change becomes a vital asset of an effective leader.


As a starting point, if you, the leader, aren’t on board from the get-go, the whole change process will be a lot more painful both for you and your people. Leading change doesn’t mean telling people what to do or how to feel. It means embracing the change yourself—and then actively guiding others through it while helping them, too, learn to embrace it. 


Don’t Just Get the Lay of the Land—Shape It


Change is not only likely, it's inevitable. 

—Barbara Sher


Learn how to navigate Organizational changesPeople have an insatiable desire to know what’s going on—and that impulse is doubly strong when jobs, careers, and livelihoods are at stake. In the absence of accurate communication from official sources, though, misunderstandings, hearsay, and outright falsehoods can take on lives of their own. 


It starts with mumblings in the break room and around the water cooler.


  • “Did you hear about the reorg that’s coming up?”
  • “One of my teammates thinks that we’re all going to be put on a totally new project next week.”
  • “Someone in sales heard that 10 percent of the company is getting laid off.”
  • “Why in the world is management doing that?!”


The best way to stave off rumors and panic is to stay ahead of them by communicating directly. Don’t want your staff’s imaginations to run wild with theories? Then you tell them—as soon as you’re able—the truth about what’s happening. 


Anticipate—and Address—Resistance


The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress. 

—Charles Kettering


Have you ever heard of the attitude bell curve? It’s a theory about the typical distribution of the attitudes an organization’s employees have about change.


  • “Change Avoiders” make up 20 percent of employees. They will never accept change and will fight any efforts to get them on board with it.
  • “Change Leaders” make up another 20 percent. They’re the ones who embrace and support change early in the process (and often wonder why it took so long to get to this point).
  • “Status Quo” make up the remaining 60 percent. These middle-of-the-road types will go along with change once its worth (and safety) have been proven to them. 


Learn how to navigate Organizational changesIn most situations, it’s the Avoiders who tend to make the most noise. But managers need to be careful not to give the Avoiders too much attention. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” holds true in many situations (for example, when you’re self-advocating for your own career development), but it’s not something to follow when leading change. 


In a change scenario, those Avoiders’ attitudes aren’t likely to budge much. (You might get lucky and meet someone who eventually does a true 180-degree turnaround—but don’t count on that.) So don’t let them dominate the discussion and steal all the energy from the room. Save your breath on the Change Leaders, too: they’re already on board and don’t need convincing.


The people you need to focus on are those in the middle – those who prefer the Status Quo. They haven’t yet made up their minds about how they feel about the change, and as such, they’re still very open to persuasion. They’re also the largest group, and how they feel about the change could make or break its implementation.


Once you’ve identified the different groups, you can start to figure out what you need to do to overcome resistance and encourage people to explore the positive aspects of the change and eventually commit to it themselves. 


Explain the Why


Change is not an event, it's a process. 

—Cheryl James


In one memorable episode of The Odd Couple, the character Felix Unger writes the word assume on a blackboard and declares, “You should never assume, because when you assume you make an ass of you and me.” I’ve always found this line to be a piece of advice with helpful applications in many parts of my life, but I think I’ve gotten the most mileage from it in my time as a manager. In my years in management, I’ve seen far too many leaders make one crucial mistake: making assumptions about what people know or believe. This invariably results in communication problems that at best slow things down—and at worst derail everything completely. 


When you’re leading people through change, never assume that everybody automatically catches on to what’s happening, even if the reasons for change seem clear. Remember, what’s obvious to one person isn’t always obvious to another person. That’s not an issue of intelligence—it’s a matter of different perspectives, which are informed by a whole host of factors. 


Instead of assuming that everyone has the same understanding about the change, spell it out in detail. Explain why the change is happening, why you the manager care about it, and why your employees should care about it too. Taking the time to walk everyone through this background information mitigates the problems that are usually associated with making assumptions.


Provide a Finite Scope


Change is such hard work. 

—Billy Crystal


The why of a change can motivate people, but at some point they are going to start wondering, “When is this going to end?” Every change eventually stops being “the new thing” and becomes “the new status quo.” You’ll find that people are more likely to be engaged and committed to the change if you tell them up front what the end looks like than if you try to figure out the end point as you go along. Give them the map they need to navigate this terrain successfully.


Take Care of “Me” Issues


Each one of us can make a difference. Together we make change. 

—Barbara Mikulski


A lot of dialogue about organizational change employs group-oriented language, such as “This is going to be a team effort” and “We are in this together” and “This change will make the whole company better.” Team work definitely makes the dream work—but it’s hard to have good team work when individual team members aren’t feeling supported. Find out what each of your employees needs to move competently and confidently through the changes ahead—then make sure they have it.

In the early years after founding my own company, I was consulting for an entertainment company. The CFO asked me to help with the “last mile” of implementing a new ERP system. It was a big, complicated, unintuitive system that was staggeringly different from what they currently were using. Unfortunately, there was no going back and they HAD to learn the new way of doing their job via this nasty system. 

I worked with the employees to create a schedule so I was actually sitting in their area whenever they were doing their jobs. So when Accounts Payable was cutting checks (or hitting the button to send money via EFT), I would relocate to their area so if they had problems, they could hit me up then and there to help. After they were done, I would then relocate to Payroll and just be immediately available when they were doing their job just in case. Bringing resources (i.e., ME) to their area helped everyone adapt to the new software quicker. 

What can you do to bring resources to your employees, ensuring they get the immediate help they need?!?!



Change brings opportunity. 

—Nido Qubein


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: communication is one of the most important aspects of leadership. Good communication is absolutely critical to the successful implementation of any endeavor. That’s doubly true for a change process, where you’re asking your employees not only to fully engage with and put their best efforts into something new but also to take a leap of faith into an area that’s unfamiliar to them—and possibly way outside their comfort zone, too.


Give them all as much data as you can think of that might ease their minds about the change and feel more prepared to participate in it. This includes answering some key questions:

  • Why is the change happening? (e.g., the “on the ground” reasons)
  • What is the inspiration for the change? (e.g., the “philosophical” reasons)
  • How will progress be measured?
  • What problems might arise along the way (and what are possible solutions for them)?
  • How will success be defined?


Lead the Implementation—and Keep an Eye on the Rollout


The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.

—Alan Watts


Once you’ve identified what change is needed, explained it to your teams, and come up with a plan for its implementation (including a schedule as well as details about any needed training, such as dates, locations, topics, and trainers), it’s time to put everything into action. As the leader, you still have plenty of hands-on work to do in this phase, though. You’ll need to track behavior and measure the results—and be prepared to adjust things on the fly if they aren’t going to plan. (You may need to draw on the various skills in your leadership tool box in order to boost flagging morale, instill confidence, tweak the management of your resources, etc.)


As you navigate the various metrics, don’t lose sight of the human factor: a successful change implementation is possible only because of the people involved, so be sure they are recognized for their efforts. Rewards not only highlight your team members’ accomplishments (who doesn’t like being rewarded for a job well done, right?) but can also entice fence-sitters to get on board with the change.


Final Thoughts


Change takes courage. 

—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez


Sometimes the greatest challenges in business lie not within the actions of competitors or the needs of customers, but from within one’s own company and ultimately within ourselves. When organizations struggle, it’s usually because their leaders have made missteps that could have been avoided, such as inaccurate assumptions, poor communication, or inadequate planning.


Change presents more challenges than most company processes because it requires people to confront their own fears and uncertainties as they venture into unknown territory. It’s a lot easier for people to undertake this journey when their managers lead the way—and are ready to encourage them when they hesitate and support them when they stumble. 


If you’ve ever been part of a big change push in an organization, please share below some of the ways your leaders guided everyone through it!


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