Several years ago, I was sitting in on a meeting when my client, a senior sales leader, told her folks about a major change that was going to happen in their organization. They were switching to a new CRM system, which would have a significant impact on all of them—and all of their people.
There was lots of headshaking, sighing, and eye-rolling (the company had a lousy reputation when it came to making changes), and I watched, surprised, as the boss blew right past these clear indications of discomfort. She said a few things about how she had faith in their ability to conquer new things, whatever-whatever, and then she changed the subject. Everyone was unusually subdued for the rest of the meeting, and she didn’t seem to notice that either.
When the meeting broke up, I pulled her aside, noted what I had seen, and asked why she chose not to acknowledge people’s reactions. Her response? “They just like to complain, but they’ll be fine; they’ll get with the program.”
Pretend Change Is Easy…At Your Peril
Sadly, many leaders take this approach to change, blatantly ignoring people’s hesitation and discomfort. Then they’re surprised when the change either takes much longer than anticipated or doesn’t yield the hoped-for benefits. And when the change doesn’t work or is more time-consuming or complicated than promised, it erodes the leader’s credibility and makes it likely that people will dig in their heels even harder when the next change comes along.
So why do leaders do this?
Reason #1: Wishful Thinking
As leaders, too many of us believe that if we tell our folks, “This change will be easy,” it will keep them from worrying and experiencing the change as difficult. But this is magical thinking that doesn’t help anyone.
Imagine you were going on a road trip, and you asked a travel blogger who knew the route what it was like. If he said, “Oh, it’s a great, simple trip with beautiful scenery,” but your trip on this same route was filled with traffic jams and desolate countryside—how would you feel about that person and the trip? That’s how your people will feel about you.
When it comes to change, honesty is the best policy. Be as accurate as possible about how long the change is likely to take and what it will require. Of course, you should share the positive stuff, too: the benefits you believe the change will bring and the support you’ll provide to make the change (such as tools, training, and new processes). In other words, provide balanced insight into what the change will require and what it will yield.
Reason #2: Not Knowing What’s Involved
Some leaders think change is going to be easy because they simply have no idea what’s involved.
Case in point: Almost 20 years ago, I was working with the CEO of a media company who wanted to start a streaming service. Now, he wasn’t wrong; he saw where the industry was headed and wanted to go there. But because it had been years since he was involved in the details of the business—and because he didn’t understand the new technology—he was convinced it could all happen in a few months.
The first time he said that in a meeting, I thought the COO and the CTO were going to pass out; they both had a much better idea of what this change would require, and they knew his goals were wildly unrealistic. Fortunately, he was a pretty open guy, and they were able to help him see what was truly involved.
When contemplating a change, be sure to get input from people in the organization who have expertise in the areas most affected so you can be realistic about the time, effort, and resources required.
Reason #3: Selective Amnesia
By the time leaders are tasked with communicating a change to their folks, they’ve had weeks or months to wrap their own heads around the change. And generally, when they first heard about it, they had concerns and reluctance, too. So, they asked questions, thought about it, gradually came to terms with it, and accepted it. But somehow, leaders forget they’ve gone through this process—and they expect their folks to magically be open to the change the first time they hear about it!
Remember: Your folks need to go through the same process you went through. They need to have time to think about the change, ask questions, understand why it’s happening and what it will mean for them. Their initial hesitation doesn’t mean they’re “risk-averse” or “change-resistant.” It simply means they’re having the standard human response to change (as you did). Recall what you went through and support your folks as they work through the same process.
If you’re one of those rare people who love and are comfortable with major change, and you didn’t go through hesitation and discomfort when first hearing about the change you’re about to share with your team, recognize that you’re unusual. Most people aren’t comfortable with change. Remind yourself that they’ll need more time and support to accept and make the change than you did.
Two Powerful Antidotes
I’ve seen all three of these things happen, and sometimes I’ve seen the same issues repeat in a single organization. Leaders can be remarkably resistant to learning from their mistakes about change.
So, how can you keep yourself from making change even more challenging than it needs to be?
Listen. Sincere, open-minded listening is the single most valuable skill for a leader. Simply listening to your team’s concerns and questions, and taking in their feedback and insights, will reduce their unease and help them feel included and engaged (versus victimized and dismissed).
In addition, you’ll get valuable information about what the change will require, how to make it easier for them, and how to increase the likelihood of success.
Manage how you talk to yourself about change and your people’s reactions to it. Your negative self-talk about these topics can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of thinking, “This will be a piece of cake” or “My team hates change,” shift to more neutral, hopeful thoughts, such as: “I don’t know yet what this change will require; we need to find out” or “My team needs some time and information to understand and accept this change.”
Doing these two things will help you navigate any change more easily—and it will enable you and your team to become ever more change-capable in this world of nonstop change.
Written by Erika Andersen.
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