Managing Change: Strategies for Leading Through Uncertainty

Fear of change and uncertainty are common reasons leaders give for resistant or underperforming employees. Yet the speed of change and the uncertainty it brings is only increasing. As a result, leaders are unequipped to guide their employees from fear and hesitancy to confidence and action. However, there’s hope. 

Employees and their leaders can boldly move through change and uncertainty if they build psychological safety, involve those implementing the change, and build momentum by celebrating wins and treating change as an opportunity to build trust. Here is some guidance.

The fear of change.  

The processing speed of the human brain is not as fast as a computer. While our laptops can run through computations and churn out reports without a break, the brain needs rest. Paul J. Zak says in his bookImmersion” that the human brain gets tired quickly and needs a break every 20 minutes. So, what appears to be a fear of change is often a weary brain needing rest. Adding to this, neuroleadership expert David Rock says our brain is hardwired to perceive stimuli from the outside world eight times more as a threat than a benefit. 

Action item: Leaders should give themselves and their employees more breaks to process and communicate change so that people understand the benefits and what’s in it for them.    

Involving the implementers.  

A common complaint we hear from employees about change initiatives in their companies is: We don’t know the reason for the change. Simon Sinek, in his bookStart with Why,” says if leaders don’t understand why they do what they do, no one else will either. Translate that into leading change initiatives; employees must understand the “why” before giving their buy-in. 

Also, people are more apt to support and implement a change initiative if they help design the process. If you want your front-line supervisors to champion and lead your change initiative, include them early in the brainstorming and design phase.  

Action item: Communicate the reason behind the change and engage those who will implement it as early as possible.

Build momentum

Another complaint we hear from employees about change initiatives is they may spend weeks, months or even years on an initiative without seeing the results or benefits.  Then, the next time management rolls out another change initiative – often called “The Flavor of the Month” – employees feel this is a repeat of the last change initiative.  

In addition, many leaders experience the setbacks and resistance that come with rolling out their new initiative, and give up out of frustration. To counteract these common issues, leaders should call out and celebrate the small wins, and take the change initiative to its completion.  

Action item: Call out and celebrate the small wins, and don’t stop the change initiative just because there is resistance or a lack of positive results.  

The connection between change and trust.  

Every time change occurs, it triggers questions in many of us, including:  

    • Can I trust the people behind the change?  
    • Am I at risk of losing anything as a result of the change?  
    • Am I able to take on more responsibility required in the change?  

While there are many books and ideas about how to build trust (Brene Brown, Patrick Lencioni, etc.), a model by Charles Feltman in The Thin Book of Trust provides a checklist we believe people subconsciously use when approached with change. Try it on for size: How would you answer the following questions regarding the last change initiative you were told by leadership you would need to implement?

    • Sincerity: Did the people leading the change mean what they said and say what they meant? 
    • Care: Did they convey a “we are all in this together” mentality, and were your best interests considered?
    • Reliability: Could you count on them to deliver what they promised?
    • Competence: Did they have the skills and insights to lead this change?
    • Action:  The next time you roll out a change initiative, do so in a way that builds trust.

In reality, people don’t fear change. They fear burnout, disappointing others, and having their time wasted. The speed of change is the slowest it will be for the rest of our lives.  Technology is a catalyst of most of that change. 

The process of leading and experiencing change can be fun, meaningful, transformative, and rejuvenating if we have separate and distinct expectations for technology and people. Our computers need the right questions, software and hardware, and an outlet to plug into. Humans need breaks from the stress of change, trust in the people leading the change, involvement in the design of the change, follow through and short term wins.

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