As an organizational leader, change is the stuff of long days and sleepless nights. For everyone else in the organization, the moment in time when you learn change is inevitable is often the stuff of panic attacks. That’s a shame because a more rational response to the need to change opens up opportunities for learning, development, and advancement. Rethinking your response to change is critical for success in our world today.

When the World Conspires Against Your Firm:

Let’s look at an all-too-common situation in our organizations. Changing market conditions, new competitors, challenging customers, changing technologies and evolving business models, or, all of the complex situation requiring strategyabove converge and demand an organizational response. In today’s era, the quality and speed of the response are essential for survival.

Based on external conditions, top managers draw upon internal experts, customers, partners, and others to rethink strategy. Depending on the situation, strategy ranges from small “s” around products and offerings to big “S” focusing on wholesale renewal and organizational reset.

In many instances, these managers and executives understand the need to keep the entire employee base in the loop and create a variety of different communication forums striving to keep everyone informed and to solicit feedback.

Good stuff, so far.

Navigating WTHDTMFM?!

Except that what everyone who is working on strategy forgets to remember is what’s going on in the minds of every employee on the receiving end of the news that change is incoming is one question: WTHDTMFM? Translation: “What the heck does this mean for me?”

Instead of scrutinizing the rationale for change and jumping into the discussion, a red flag pops up in our mind, we shift from discovery to defend mode, and our emotional brains dominate the internal dialog.

The emotions are amplified as the hallway and water-cooler gossip increase in volume and the rumor mill smiles and kicks into high gear.

Defensive measures are immediately deployed. Many opt to keep a low profile and avoid being noticed. Others go on the offense, railing at the idea of change, rabble rousing, and demanding more status quo, all without understanding the situation.

Stop it!

What Your Real Response Must Be:

OK, easy to write, hard to do. It’s practically an involuntary reaction to the status quo to move into fight or flight mode. The ancient wiring still dominates how we respond to change.

Nonetheless, your response in an organizational setting should be focused on seeking answers to questions, including:

  • Do I understand the rationale for why we are being told we must change?
  • What questions need to be answered so I can fully comprehend the situation?
  • Can I trust the people involved in describing the need to change?
  • Is my assumption that this means my job is in jeopardy, rational? Based on fact?
  • If I have an opinion on the approach to change, is there a means for me to share it?
  • What are some of the real risks of changing/not changing that we have to take into account?
  • How can I help?

This last question is the one to rule them all.

Make Your Response An Admission Ticket to Opportunity:

If you want to make a top manager melt in gratitude, be one of the very few in any setting who will stand up and ask, “How can I help?”

Instead, what the messengers get in their round-tables and town hall meetings, sounds a lot like… crickets.

Whether the words are said or not, those involved in assessing the need to change need your help.

Image of individual stepping out away from crowdWhat executives and top managers are mostly not telling you in those live settings is: This is a complex situation, the way forward is not crystal clear, and we cannot stand still or move in reverse. Please help us, and together we can survive and even thrive.

Perhaps those exact words might elicit better responses.

Contrary to popular belief, the hard work of strategy isn’t in the conception. It mostly lives or dies in execution. This is your opportunity to contribute, learn, and grow.

Instead of fight or flight, it’s time to step-up and step-in to help with change.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Roughly translated, you need to become part of the solution to change. For the rest of your career, you will be part of something in the process of changing. Why not seize the opportunity instead of resisting the inevitable. Don’t blindly accept the rationale—in fact, go in with your critical thinking and questions blazing. Just don’t stand on the sidelines and then serve as a critic. Ask: How can I help? And then help shape the right kind of change.

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Leadership Books by Art Petty