That change is hard and uncomfortable, is old news.
That most companies do a poor job at handling change, is also, sadly, old news.
We might be living in the fastest changing era in human history; we might be change-adept when it comes to personal choices that we control (e.g. changing phone, car, diet, home furniture); but we are still taking it very hard when things are being changed around us, without our control, like in organisational changes.
Every time I am asked to assist organisations with change – to coach leaders or teams and help them overcome resistance to change, to run a Change Management workshop, or to provide suggestions for how to handle the before and after stress of a change – I always notice one common denominator. One very important aspect is underplayed, underestimated or simply missing: “to talk about it”.
Let me be clear: those who announce, explain, justify, reassure and then explain again, they do talk a lot; too much in fact.
It is the people who are affected who do not get a change to really talk about it.
In their eagerness to remove the pain and to present a reassuring picture, most managers unintentionally disregard legitimate human reactions of shock, fear or resentment, thus creating a relationship fracture and often prolonging the negativity.
Really talking about it means: to be invited and encouraged to share, to be listened to and truly heard, to be acknowledged and validated, to be met in our struggles with empathy, to be offered a humble and honest mutual exchange of impressions; those who announce the change find it hard too; they need to tell, share their vulnerability, and avoid playing gods.
Often the reason for not inviting an open dialogue is another fear: the fear of opening the Pandora Box and to consequently be faced with an overwhelming load of emotions.
The reality is that if we DO NOT invite people to share how they feel, they will continue to ruminate and their resistance to change will last even longer.
By asking them to talk about it, we ensure that they get a chance to “vent” (often we just need to get it off our chest and then we can resume positive energy), that they feel seen and heard (genuine heart-felt validation acts as serotonin in our brain, we feel better), and that you get better insights about their fears, in order to more appropriately address them. If we can also bring ourselves to sharing our own feelings (“I know it is hard, change is hard also for me; and I especially hate the uncertainty”), we will also help them “normalise their emotions” (no need to exaggerate just for making a point, we understand each other, we are in the same boat), and we will encourage collaboration; courageous vulnerability is influential.
We can invite people to talk one by one, or in team; we can even do it in a plenary session as long as we split them in smaller working groups, so everyone gets a chance to talk and that the groups can bring up insights from most everybody.
A useful technique to channel some of the most typical fears with teams who are undergoing change is the “Past, Future, Present” exercise:
- Preparation: Three flip charts in a room, each with a title; those titled “PAST” and “FUTURE” on opposing walls and the one titled “PRESENT” in the center, or front wall.
- Phase One: Ask the team, or the workgroups, to discuss between them and write on the “PAST” flip chart what they are proud of: their competences, skills, processes, networks, established relationships, work tools, values, etc. (everything acquired, gathered, learnt and used until yesterday, as well as values that were lived by and honoured).
- Phase Two: Next, ask them to discuss and write on the “FUTURE ” flip chart what they expect to need in the new organisation/situation: required competences, skills, processes, networks, relationships, work tools, values, etc. (everything they can think of, that will be required to make the new set-up successful, as well as the values that will need honouring)
- Phase Three: Read the two lists out loud. Chances are that a few items will be on both lists (e.g. certain competences like customer focus, or use of certain tools and processes like a specific CRM program and a certain Lean procedure, or values that we will continue to honour like transparency or accountability). Identify these similarities (or suggest a few and potentially encourage a new round of talks) and circle them.
- Phase Four: Ask them to talk and select the five most important items to focus on right now, with at two of them chosen from the circled ones. Have them write then on the “PRESENT” chart.
- Phase Five: Have an open discussion about the experience and stress a couple of points: 1. We are not loosing everything, the past is still valuable (change often makes us feel that all what we knew and did has no value); 2. The transition cannot be abrupt, we do not go straight from past to future, there will be a learning curve, and we can select what to learn first and what second (another fear is that all of the sudden everything will change all at once, while we need to have a learning period; this selection also gives them better ownership)
This technique has worked in a number of pretty challenging situation, e.g. mergers and downsizing. If you are interested in other tips and techniques to apply to your own specific challenge, please do not hesitate to drop me a line at email@example.com or to attend my next Master Class (see link below)
Online MasterClass on Change: Thu, Feb 23, 2017 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM CET
A Live Discussion of Why we Fear Change and What To Do About it
Managing Partner, Grooa AS