Leading through change

Change within teams and organisations is something that always fascinated me before I became a manager. I was always intrigued to see how different dynamics would play out, how it would impact our work and what would happen as a result of it. 

But while I was aware of my own positive feelings towards change, I was also very mindful of a large proportion of people who found the prospect of change paralysing; perhaps as a result of a negative experience in the past.

Leading through change requires you to be able to identify and manage the different emotions your team will experience.

Managing through change is largely about managing emotions

As first level managers, we can often find ourselves being the buffer between those who have been planning the change and the people it ultimately affects. Not only do you have to process your own emotions about the change, you also have to prepare to manage the trepidation of your team. And nothing will shape your team’s ability to adopt change more than you. 

As a manager, I led through many periods of change and it’s important to note that, as with anything, the more experience you have, the more effective you will be. What I mean when I say effective in the sense of leading through change, is being able to move people through the period of disruption as smoothly as possible while maintaining levels of productivity.

Change is inevitable. If organisations don’t change, adapt and innovate, they ultimately get left behind and fail. Keep this in the back of your mind as you read through this section. 

Leading through change as a new manager

1. Understand your own preference for change

As a new manager, it’s important to reflect on your attitude and mindset towards change. It might be that you embrace change and if that’s the case, skip straight on to the next section. 

If however you find change difficult, it’s worth doing some introspective work to understand where this has come from and how you might be able to challenge it. It’s essential to be able to show patience, stamina, resilience and emotional stability during any periods of change so preparing your mindset early will really help you in the long term. 

If you are inclined to think negatively about change ask yourself:

  • What do I believe about change?
  • What makes me think that change is negative?
  • What examples are there where I’ve experienced change and it had a negative impact on me and / or those around me?
  • What positive things came out of those negative experiences for me?
  • When have I experienced change and only positive things have come out of it?
  • What learnings can I take from these examples?
  • What would be a more effective belief to hold about change as I move forward in my role as a manager?
2. Be a champion for change

Often, as new managers, we feel we have to carry the full burden of the change ourselves or to limit the impact the change has on our team. Another common and destructive (sounds extreme but it’s true in this sense) mistake in new managers is to use the change as an opportunity to score likeability points with our team by adopting an ‘us versus them’ mentality and joining in with the criticism about the change.  

A more effective approach is to expose your team to the change as soon as possible. If you try to protect your team from the change, they will feel less secure and relevant when the new strategy becomes permanent. The following steps will help you to become a champion for change:

Understand the ‘why’

To be authentic when leading people through change, it’s important that you understand why the change is happening. Even if you don’t wholeheartedly agree with the change, if you have a better understanding of why the decision has been made, it will make it much easier to communicate it.

Ask your manager or other stakeholders if you could spend some time with them. Approach them by saying you really want to support the business and your team through this change and gaining a better understanding around the decisions that have been made will help you to do that.

Everyone makes the best choice available to them at the time

Belief of excellence, NLP

By holding the belief that everyone has a good intention and makes the best decision available to them at the time, it will allow you to approach these conversations with curiosity, rather than judgement. 

Bring your team together

If the change is one that gets announced company wide, be sure to bring your team together straight after to allow them to ask questions and vent any concerns. This reduces the chance of confusion and unfounded gossip which can send emotions soaring. 

Don’t be afraid to say if you don’t know the answer; the worst thing you can do is assume and then backtrack. Be honest and say you don’t have that information right now but you will be sure to come back to them on it. 

Make sure you follow up with everyone individually; some people will feel uncomfortable voicing their concerns in front of others so it’s important that they get the opportunity to speak up in a safe environment.

Be direct and clear

Vague and confusing language will only serve to lead people down a path of worry and fearing the worse. Be direct and clear. Try to keep your body language relaxed and open and keep your tone of voice calm. Respect your team’s intelligence and resilience by being honest about hard truths. If the change is going to be hard, acknowledge it but follow up with details. 

Remember that most people can handle bad news, but hate ambiguity or evasion.

Use ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘they’ and ‘them’

To be a champion of change, it’s important that you take ownership rather than putting the onus on the change coming from other people. Aim to be neutral and open rather than distancing yourself from it.

Clarify how the change will affect your team

Everyone wants to know what the impact will be on us. It’s human nature! One word of caution here is to be clear around when the impact is a possibility as opposed to a certainty.

3. Minimise disruption

During any period of change, it’s normal for productivity to take a dip while people comprehend what it means for them. It is your responsibility to minimise the impact the change has on levels of productivity. To do this, you need to help your team members to;

  • Understand what’s changing and why 
  • Understand what the change means for them personally 
  • Understand what they can do to regain some control over events
  • Decide on the actions they will take

Involving your team in the change process as much as possible will help them to better understand what is changing and why, which is more likely to get their buy in.

Be as transparent during this period as you possibly can be and continue to check in with your team on a very regular basis. Ask your team open questions to ascertain how well they are processing and coping with the change and ask them what you can do to make things easier (just be prepared for some sarcastic comments!).

Walk your talk

You will be under extra scrutiny during this period; people will try to read into your facial expressions and mood to try to figure out what the change actually means so be mindful of your behaviour. If you feel you need 5 minutes to clear your head after a meeting, take it; get some fresh air or take yourself to a quiet place to reset. The calmer and more confident you are about the change, the more likely your direct reports will focus on how they can adapt to the change too.

Address cynicism

It’s highly likely that you’ll have some team members who disagree with the change or have better ideas. Tackle this head on. Leaders don’t change things just for the fun of it; they change things because they have to, either to grow, innovate or in some cases, to catch up. Change creates huge risk in an organisation, so you can be sure that a lot of thought has gone into it. These decisions aren’t made lightly. Make sure your team is reminded of this if you hear a lot of negative talk around it.

Behind every behaviour is a positive intention

Belief of excellence, NLP

It’s also worth pointing out that 93% of successful strategic initiatives change along the way; be prepared for this as a manager as it’s highly likely that the initial rollout plan will evolve. When plans change, some people see it as an opportunity to roll their eyes and scoff, reiterating that they ‘knew it wouldn’t work’. Remind them that even the best laid plans can change; people make decisions using the information they have available to them at the time and success relies on them being nimble, flexible and open to challenge.

4. Adoption & reset

When the bulk of the disruption is complete, use it as an opportunity to reset and reprioritise your team’s objectives to ensure they are still aligned to the business. This will allow you to focus on regaining stability in your team and gives you permission to say ‘no’ to anything that doesn’t support your efforts. 

Look for and celebrate early wins associated with the change, no matter how small. And use this time as an opportunity to reflect and learn; what could you be doing differently, how could you better support your team, what have you learned through the process?

During periods of change, you will find that a lot of time is spent managing emotions. Remember to take time for yourself to support your own wellbeing. In doing so, you will be better equipped to help others to adapt quickly and come out the other end with better performance. And by demonstrating that you can thrive during uncertainty, you’ll likely accelerate your own leadership career too.

Want further support in your role as a manager?

Our Intentional Manager Programme, developed for new and aspiring managers, or for those with up to 3 years’ experience is a unique, year long partnership to help maximise potential and deliver effective, lasting performance improvements.

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