December 5, 2019

Change or Die

Years ago, I was working on a large scale change effort with a colleague.  We were in the process of carefully outlining every scenario we could think of to aid people in understanding and navigating the shifts we would be making as an organization.  And then we looked at our beautiful mind looking whiteboard and I said, "What we are really suggesting is change or die."

Yes, this is a rather harsh realization.  And yet just like humans, businesses must evolve.  Doing the same thing, and expecting the status quo will sustain long term is just plain bad business.  Failure to change and advance can put even some of the world's greatest companies in jeopardy.

I also find it curious that the word "change" is so loaded.  There are seemingly infinite volumes written about how to manage change in a business, lessening the blow to employees, and helping guide them through it with the least amount of chaos possible.  And yet when we apply that word "change" in a different context (think "I want to change the world"), it's met with a far more positive reaction.  Logic would suggest that this has something to do with having change thrust upon you, as compared to tackling change head on.  Bottom line, I'd argue, that change is a constant in our lives.  We can either elect to embrace it as an adventure, or we can resist it every step of the way.

In a perfect world, we’d all embrace change through the lens of the opportunity it could bring.  Let’s be honest - that’s not reality.  So how can we as leaders make change less anxiety inducing?  Here’s a take on understanding why people resist change - and what you can do to help.

RESIST REASON #1:  OMG!  What is going to happen?!! Does anyone ever like being blindsided? People tend to have a negative reaction when change happens without any warning - especially when it is perceived that that change might be negative.

APPROACH #1: Outline the change specifics.  This is no time to be vague.  Whether it’s team restructures, new managers, or projects taking new shape, be clear and concise, and leave the guessing to an absolute minimum.  What may seem like a small shift to you might feel pretty significant to someone on your team.

RESIST REASON #2:  I don’t trust you.  Strong managers and leaders work hard to build trusted relationships with their teams.  If that trust exists, it’s far more likely the team will be accepting of the changes and how they are being communicated to them.  However, if the trust is tenuous, it can manifest into change resistance.

APPROACH #2: Consider WHO the changes impact.  This doesn’t just mean those directly impacted.  Think about customers, partners, and key cross functional relationships as well and outline how any changes that affect them can aid in trust building and/or erosion.

RESIST REASON #3: This is the last straw! Timing is everything.  Even the most open minded people have a limit to how much change they can endure at once before reaching a breaking point.  When too much change happens without any regard given to timing, or without the appropriate tact and empathy, expect for the team to revolt.

APPROACH:  Share HOW the changes will impact people: One of the most significant changes an individual can face at an organization is if a layoff takes place.  Clearly, in that circumstance your managing through both financial and emotional impact. And while not every change is that dramatic, job changes, management shifts and project reprioritization can wreak havoc in terms of emotional impact. Be incredibly clear about how these changes will impact individuals, the team, and the company at large. Transparency and empathy will go a long way in these situations.

RESIST REASON #4: I can deal with change, but my coworker hates it.  Not everyone responds to change in the same way.  Some can lean into it and find the opportunity that exists with the new state; others find themselves reluctant to embrace anything new.

APPROACH: Take the time to understand what level of change readiness individual members of your team have, and what their needs might be.  While it may be challenging to create a custom approach for every single person, a thoughtful approach to meet people where they are can go a very long way.

Embracing the fact that change needs to happen can be a challenge whether it occurs in your work or your home life.  And while implementing any change is unlikely to be completely painless, taking the time to create thoughtful strategy, planning and analysis, and coupling it with empathy and compassion can help bypass a lot of the sting.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.