As a business speaker, I talk to groups a great deal about the issues of change. From navigating the business and industry impacting change created by advancements in technology and the obsolescence of older business approaches, to the more personal issue of how to best absorb and respond to uninvited change, the topic is always front and center. I believe the guidance I offer on succeeding with change to my core, yet it helps to be reminded regularly of how personal this issue truly is for each of us.

It is during the post speech one-on-ones where people approach me and share their own issues with change that I am reminded of how vulnerable we all are to this reality-of-life. It is easy to depersonalize change or view it as an abstract concept easily dispatched by following a list of suggestions, but life is not that easy.

Fresh from a round of recent engagements, here are some very real reminders of how personal change is and how poorly we as leaders perform in guiding our people through the fog.

Anecdotes on Change from People Living It:

  • We are constantly told we have to change in our firm, but we are never told why beyond costs and profits. If the leaders would share more about the problem, I believe that all of us could help identify solutions. Instead, we worry about our jobs and what’s next.
  • My job has changed three times in the past year, and every time it was a surprise. I had no say in the role I was assigned and I have no idea what this means for my career in this firm.
  • My department was just consolidated with another group. I like the people, but none of us know what we are supposed to stop or start doing now that we are one group.
  • We are worried. The only reason our sales have grown is because our competitors are either exiting the business or going out of business. Everything is changing, yet we don’t seem to have a strategy. Most of us are looking for new jobs.
  • My old firm went out of business. Basically, the entire industry has been either outsourced or replaced by software. My best friend at work was so distraught over the sudden ending to a firm she had been a part of for twenty years, she had to be hospitalized for depression.

The comments above are from different people in very different situations, yet they all have one thing in common—their vulnerability and feelings of helplessness in the face of uninvited and unanticipated change. The leaders and managers of the respective firms have exacerbated the situations by failing to offer context, guidance and even the least expensive of all options, empathy.

Neurophysiologists reference the S.C.A.R.F. model when discussing the impact of change and our response options. It is an acronym that stands for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If the situation trips the threat meter for any of these issues, it triggers our fight or flight responses, pushing logical thinking to the back of the bus. In too many firms, leadership continues to pluck those strings in the wrong way, evoking the worst possible emotional notes from employees.

With proper engagement, communication and genuine empathy, leaders at all levels can easily improve their handling of and results from change initiatives and reduce the human toll considerably.

7 Actions All Leaders Must Take When Guiding Change:

1. Show respect for your employees by providing advanced and in-depth context for internal or strategy changes. The Navy SEALs focus on clarifying both “Commander’s Intent” and “Endstate” to ensure that everyone understands the mission purpose and expected outcome and can plan and act accordingly.

2. Give people a voice in how changes will be implemented. You show respect for your employees when you trust them to implement the needed changes. They become invested in the process and you gain their best efforts, not their fight or flight responses.

3. Solicit ideas that may minimize or eliminate the need for adverse changes. I have marveled at teams that have rallied to cut costs, identify new ways of operating and even voluntarily taken pay cuts to eliminate the short-term need for layoffs. Don’t assume your team members won’t have some great ideas.

4. Teach people about the business drivers behind change. As the world evolves, strategies must shift, and while the old way was successful, it may not fit in the emerging environment. Many of us operate with a “It has worked for us before, why do we have to change now?” mentality when faced with doing new things in new ways. Context and education are critical in these situations.

5. It’s a process, not an event! The change process starts, not ends with the announcement. Set up feedback loops and allow the people on the ground implementing change the opportunity to adjust and improve on the fly.

6. Answer the burning question. Have empathy for the number one issue on everyone’s mind: “What does this mean for me?” Acknowledge this issue and strive to answer it as early in the process as possible or you invite fear to the party.

7. Don’t shoot yourself in the credibility foot. I once observed a management team implement layoffs and then immediately head off for a “planning retreat” at a posh golf resort. They would have been much better off restricting their travels to the very visible conference room on the factory floor and then buying their food at the “roach coach” patronized by factory workers at break and lunch.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It is easy to talk about change, but the talk should never be divorced from the reality that this issue impacts people at a deeply personal level. As a leader, you have a great deal of power to help everyone navigate change without triggering fear, fight or flight. It is time to raise your game on guiding change.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.