The ability to lead change and the ability to embrace change are the two most business-critical skills for any organization. In the decades I have spent leading change and helping other leaders to do the same, I have learned five core truths about change:
- All change is personal. Even the most comprehensive organizational change is the culmination of a myriad of individual, personal changes.
- We all erect our own unique personal barriers to change. Some of them last a millisecond. Some may last a lifetime. But we can learn to overcome them.
- All change is emotional. Emotion trumps logic every time. In fact, emotion is four times more powerful than logic when it comes to change.
- No one changes simply because he or she is told to. We only change if we want to. Therefore, as leaders, our job is to help people to want to change.
- We can be our own change catalyst. By identifying our change barriers and emotional triggers, we have the power to enable ourselves to change.
How Do Employees Respond to Change?
The short answer to this question is, “Badly.” Whenever we are confronted by change, especially a big change that happens to us, each of us erects our own unique barriers. We can’t help it. It is a natural, evolutionary survival mechanism.
Eighty-eight percent of change initiatives do not meet their goals, according research by Bain & Co. A similar proportion of business strategies, mergers and acquisitions suffer the same fate: Seven out of eight fail to deliver what they set out to achieve. The reason is that change is all about people — and people are emotional, irrational beings.
Too many change leaders think that logic and process are enough to bring about successful change — but they aren’t. If we are to embrace change, humans require not only clarity around what we are trying to achieve but also a positive emotional reason for getting on board. We also need the opportunity to voice our concerns about the change — and to be listened to, genuinely. Finally, we need to have been engaged in identifying the implications of the change. Only then will we have the motivation to work out how to overcome them.
How Can Leaders Manage Their Own Response to Change?
Leading change is the most important leadership skill of all. If we are not leading change, we are not leading anything; we are just managing the status quo. And, for so many organizations, the status quo no longer exists.
Because leaders must lead by example, they must also be exemplars at embracing change themselves if they have any chance of enabling their people to do the same. As they enhance their own ability to embrace change, they need to keep in mind how they can do the same for their people.
The first step is to acknowledge that change is personal, emotional and inevitable. Understanding these truths is a big step in the right direction.
Next is to articulate what may be holding us back when it comes to change. We all erect our own personal barriers to change. Are you afraid of failing? Of looking stupid? Of being blamed for not changing earlier? Of a loss of status? Of a loss of your current relationships?
Once we have identified our barriers, we can start to overcome each one. We can overcome our fear of failure by putting things into perspective and breaking the change down into smaller, bite-size steps. We can overcome our fear of the unknown through research. If our heads are full of negative thoughts and concerns, we need to learn to detach ourselves from them. They aren’t us. They are just thoughts.
We need to reframe how we think of change. Rather than something that throws all of these obstacles in our way, we need to think of it as something that is presenting us with opportunity. We also need to reframe how we think of ourselves. Success and contentment demand change, and we deserve both.
How Can We Enable Teams to Embrace Change?
The most important gifts learning and development (L&D) departments can give leaders is the ability to lead successful change — the skills, tools and mindset they need to accept and embrace change. Firstly, L&D must do so for employees’ well-being — to enable them to thrive in a world of uncertainty — and secondly for the health of the organization. If your people aren’t ready, willing and able to embrace change, nothing will happen.
To help your employees to become more open to change, your leaders will need to:
Provide Them the Clarity They Need
Leaders should be able to answer questions such as, “What are you setting out to achieve, and why?”, “What does ‘good’ look like?”, and “How will you measure success?”.
Engage With Them to Identify the Implications of the Change
Every change has its downsides, even good change. Leaders must enable their team members to voice their concerns about the change and identify its implications, for the organization and for them.
Remove the Fear of Failure
Often, it isn’t failure we fear; it is the consequence of failure. Leaders must create an environment where employees can try new things, fail, learn and try again.
Publicly Celebrate Innovation
Leaders should celebrate employees who embrace change and try new things.
Give Them the Power to Change
Finally, leaders must give employees the skills they need to overcome their own personal change barriers, build their resilience and enhance their ability to embrace change.