The pace of change is ever increasing. Industries are being disrupted, new business models are being tested and launched, new technology is being deployed, customers and employees have new expectations of organisations, there are digital transformation projects and culture change initiatives to land and as a people manager or leader you are expected to make sense of everything, lead your people successfully through all of this, and still deliver business results. It’s hard!
But why is change so hard? The reality is that our brains are actually still hardwired in a very similar way to how they were hundreds of thousands of years ago, when we were roaming the plains. Back then change was almost always a threat. Additionally, our brains are exceptionally lazy (for the most part) – and look for shortcuts and the easy way of doing things – typically by doing things they way they’ve done so in the past. So to change, we’re almost having to fight our own biology.
I firmly believe that once we all understand a bit more about how the brain works during times of change – the psychology and neuroscience of change – it can help give insights into why change triggers the emotions that it does. This helps us understand why change is hard, meaning we can proactively create the conditions around us for success.
Change triggers an emotional response in us all. It might well be a positive emotion – where we understand the benefits of the change, what’s in it for us, and we feel like we have the skills to be successful in the new world. People who respond to a given change in this way are what I refer to as ‘change navigators’. As a leader or manager, if you have these people in your team, celebrate them and have them help you champion the change and bring their peers with them along the way.
It is unlikely that everyone will fall into the ‘navigator’ category however. You’ll probably find that some people are actively critical of the change – the ‘critics’. You’ll know exactly who these people are because they will likely be very vocal about why the change is a bad idea and mustn’t go ahead.
Critics are actually a very valuable asset during times of change – firstly because they may well have some valuable insights into impact of the change that you and the leadership hadn’t considered, and need to include additional support structures into your change plan. The other great thing about critics is that they have passion for the topic at hand. If you take the time to really listen to them, you’ll probably get some valuable insights that will help improve how the change is rolled out. And if you help them understand why this change is happening and what’s in it for them you could find they become the biggest advocates for the change.
You’ll also find that some people will (metaphorically) have their head in the sand – those that claim to know nothing about what is going on – a.k.a the ‘bystanders’. You’ll probably also have a percentage of your population who behave as if they are ‘victims’: “Why is this happening to me? It’s so unfair!”.
The important thing to note that the above reactions are all totally normal responses. By using the tips and suggestions I’ve listed below and following a structured and thoughtful approach to managing, communicating and leading the change, you should be able to bring everyone with you along the way.
Here are my 6 top tips for leading others through change successfully:
- Lead by example
As a leader it is essential that you role model the behaviours that you wish to see in others. If you expect your team to work in a new way / use a new technology or follow a new process, but you don’t do it yourself, chances of success are nill.
- Include people in the change
One of the most fascinating things I’ve learnt in recent time as I’ve been getting into the topic of neuroscience, is that when people are excluded from something, it triggers the same part of the human brain as is triggered when we experience physical pain. Does that bring back memories of not being picked for a sports team when you were at school…? (just me!?) Including people in the change, is really important. This might be in the form or having people participate in a champions program, soliciting feedback from everyone impacted by the change, and having a well considered communications plan in place so everyone feels like they are part of the change in some way.
- Provide as much certainty as you can
Uncertainty is the worst state for the human brain – even worse than the certainty of bad things.* When we are in a state of uncertainty it impacts negatively on our ability to do our jobs, to be creative and to be productive. If the change is going to result in bad news for some people, don’t drag out telling them. Knowing something bad is infinitely better than the uncertainty of not knowing, as it will allow people to start making steps forward in some way.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate!
In order for people to get on board with change they need to be able to connect with it rationally, emotionally and behaviourally. To make a rational connection with the change people need to understand how this change is tied to the big picture, how is it connected to the company achieving its vision or mission. To make an emotional connection you have to be able to show ‘what’s in it for employees’. This might not be immediately obvious in some cases, so you might need to think about longer term benefits, and also what the risks associated with not changing are and how that might be detrimental. You can also increase emotional engagement by getting people involved in some element of the change project, so that they feel a part of what is going on, allowing them to feel a sense of ownership. Lastly to build a behavioural connection with people you need to show them how to behave and how they can be successful in the new world. This will typically include training and support to help people build new skills, knowledge and expertise. This Head (rational), Heart (emotional), Feet (behavioural) approach is a useful checklist to make sure you’re communicating the right things.
- Be Realistic
If we find out that things we’ve been told in the past aren’t true, our Prefrontal Cortex switches to high alert, looking for other signs of deception and triggering feelings of anxiety. So being realistic is important. Every change will bring challenges with it – so while it is important to focus on the benefits and why the change is happening, you should also set realistic expectations with people that it might involve additional work or overcoming some challenges as the transition takes place.
It is really important to reward and recognise those employees who are displaying desired behaviours, people who are stepping up to be the champions and navigators, as this will encourage others to embrace the change. Sometimes in fast paced environments we just don’t make the time to pause, reflect on how far we’ve come and recognise the time and effort that people have put into getting to now. Rewarding and recognising people well for this change, will make it easier to get people to volunteer their support for whatever change is coming next. And you can be sure that the next change is just around the corner!
Change is hard for us humans, but it isn’t going to slow down, so the better we can each get about embracing it, and creating the conditions for both ourselves and others to thrive in times of change the better. I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotes from Peter Drucker:
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
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