Last week my dog’s collar broke while out for a walk, so my girlfriend and I needed to purchase a new one for him. I advocated for a more traditional chain collar, but she went rogue and purchased a nylon walking harness. When she shared the news of this purchase with me over the phone I had a surprisingly emotional (and in retrospect, a slightly dramatic) reaction. “Are you serious? Why did you get THAT? It’s going to be such a pain. Why can’t we just have the same thing we had before?”
Why did I react that way? Was it because I’m diametrically opposed to nylon walking harnesses? Was it because I didn’t get my way? I’ll admit that maybe it’s a little bit of both of those things – but ultimately, it was about my response to change. Using a new apparatus for walking the dog represented a small change, but a change nonetheless. I was used to the old way of doing things – of snapping the collar around the dog’s neck and using it as a support for correcting him during walks. What was this new harness going to be like? What will it look like on the dog? Will I be able to wield the same sort of authoritative dog-walking prowess as I had before, or would my power be compromised? All of these questions flooded into my psyche both consciously and unconsciously, and the result was an immediate opposition to the change. (Spoiler: we ended up both agreeing after a couple of days that the harness isn’t so great and will be going back to the collar – but I didn’t know that at the time).
Why is change so hard? It’s less about the change itself and more about the loss that people experience as a result of the change. Think about the last major change you experienced at work – a new supervisor, a restructured team, an acquisition or merger, a new curriculum to teach. How did you experience that change? What did you lose in that process (or what did you fear that you might lose in the process)? While change is typically good and organizations pursue it for necessary reasons (e.g. in order to stay competitive, make more money, be more efficient or comply with regulations), individual employees don’t always see the immediate benefits and may experience real losses in the process. It is the job of the leader to help the team to understand the change and to navigate the team through the change process successfully.
Here are a few things to consider for guiding your team successfully through a change process:
Share the vision:
Your team needs to know why the change is important, what things will look like in the future, and how the organization (and its staff) will benefit from the change. Make sure you have a clear vision and communicate it with consistency.
When there is not transparent communication, people tend to fill in the gaps with their own stories and assumptions – this is especially true during a new change process. Let people know what’s coming, what to expect and what role they will need to play. And don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know the answer – it actually boosts your credibility as a leader.
Engage in Dialogue:
The difficulties of the change process are often assumed to be things that can’t be talked about publicly or with the boss (though they are almost always discussed among employees and behind closed doors). Check in with your employees to understand how they are experiencing the change process. Ask them questions. Seek their input. Make it okay to talk about how hard the change process is, and help them make meaning of it. Your proactive engagement demonstrates your real concern for their success.
Be Persistent and Consistent:
Organizations oftentimes float back to the old way of doing things after launching a major change initiative. This is because change takes time, consistency and unrelenting persistence. It’s also because the resistance to change among team members can be difficult to work through – so difficult that the old way reasserts itself despite the clear benefits to be gained from the change. Be conscious of the temptation to relent and fight it with persistence.
Nothing builds and sustains momentum for change more than good news and positive feedback. Let your team know when they are having success with the new change and celebrate the organizational gains that result.
Change is hard, but strong leadership can be the difference between success and derailment. Now if only all of our changes could be as simple and easy as switching from a dog collar to a harness…