The Secret Strategy of Transformational Leadership: How To Navigate Change That Sticks

Captain at the helm of ship

Navigating the seas of change requires a skilled captain at the helm of the ship.

If you run your own business, you’re already aware how fast you must adapt to changing markets, technology, and customer demands.  To do this successfully, you must be skilled at influencing change within your organization.  Business transformation requires leaders to inspire and influence employees and key stakeholders to actively engage them in making necessary changes.  Why is this a challenge for today’s leaders and how can you succeed at leading through change?

Understanding The Emotional Side Of Change

During transformational endeavors, most leaders put a great deal of effort into the organizations’ systems, structures, and processes to make sure that there is no negative impact to the operational engine. But little effort is given to managing the emotions of people required to make the changes.  For some, the change might be very traumatic. For others, it might cause severe anxiety, and for others, it might just be business as usual.  The latter group will often become advocates for change within the team and help support others as they move through the challenges ahead.

Change is intrinsically difficult for most people because it heightens the response of the limbic system or the emotional side of the brain.  Under normal working conditions, people function with the rational side of their brains or the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for logic and problem-solving capabilities.  However, when the limbic system is overly stimulated due to significant changes within the environment, associates may experience feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and even anger.  If left unattended, these feelings will eventually impact engagement and can also derail the future vision.  As a leader, you are responsible for helping your associates through the change journey which requires communication, training, and support.

Communication

Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.”  ~John P. Kotter

Fear and anxiety are normal human reactions to uncertainty.  While it’s impossible to live without some ambiguity in business, leaders can curb these emotional responses to change and reduce resistance from associates by communicating three important messages:

  1. The Vision – what the future will look like and why this is important for the business. If the “why” isn’t clear, it is impossible to create the desire to change in the hearts and minds of associates.  Without desire, they will be reluctant to move towards the new future.
  2. The Purpose – the specific role that associates will play to facilitate the change. Purpose gives meaning to our work and is a major factor in engagement.  People are also more willing to take risks if they understand the purpose they serve.
  3. The Benefit – how associates will personally benefit and how they will be impacted by the changes.  Communicating the benefits gives associates perceived value in their work.

These communications are extremely important to help associates embrace change and if done well, will create a strong desire to attain the future vision.  When developing your communication plan, ensure that each message above is included and repeated multiple times (five to seven is recommended since people undergoing change, who are anxious and emotionally distressed, often need to hear a message multiple times to fully process and remember it). 

Training

Once associates understand and buy into the change, leaders must prepare them with the necessary knowledge and skills to facilitate the transformation.  What will associates need to do differently in the future?  What new knowledge and skills will they need to be successful? What are their current strengths and weaknesses?  This assessment will guide the development of a comprehensive training plan which should be implemented prior to the rollout to reduce the decline in productivity.  Training plans should encompass the following:

  1. New processes and operating procedures that will need to be followed.
  2. Technical skills required to succeed – new tools, software, and operating platforms
  3. New job functions if specific roles will take on additional responsibilities (ie. Moving from an individual contributor to a managerial role).

Work on a detailed training plan well in advance so that you have time to make any necessary changes required, build training manuals, and bring professionals on board to facilitate the training if required.

Support

Nothing so undermines organizational change as the failure to think through the losses people face.”  ~William Bridges

As associates begin the journey towards the future, there will inevitably be ups and downs. Even if they are excited about the change, understand their role, and have developed the necessary skills, they will still be met with challenges and frustrations along the way.  As they move through this change curve, and hit the lowest spot known as the “valley of despair,” they will experience feelings of denial (that the change is really happening), frustration and depression (what if I fail? Why is this so hard?), and anger (what’s wrong with the old way? This isn’t going to work!).

Emotional reaction to change expressed as a model:

Kubler-Ross change curve
(Model developed by psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross; included in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying)

Gradually over time, associates will start to accept the future and look towards it as they move away from the past.  Until this happens, leaders must provide strong support for their associates to help them move through the change curve as quickly as possible. This will minimize the negative impact to the business caused by the dip in productivity.  There are four key elements for supporting the change that top leaders follow.

  • Assess and gauge the team’s response to the change – set aside time with associates to better understand where they currently are and how they are dealing with the change. During these sessions, ask them what they need from you to help make a smooth transition.
  • Empathize – let associates know that you understand the challenges that they are facing. Acknowledging their thoughts and feelings communicates a sense of personal value that helps motivate them.  Provide inspiration and encouragement for associates who are struggling and have advocates partner with them to ease the transition.
  • Establish new norms – help ease anxiety by providing a sense of ritual for the team. In times of uncertainty, associates need to have some established norms that make their environment feel stable and less chaotic.  These can be weekly team meetings, 1-on-1 touch bases, specific deliverables, a weekly breakfast or coffee break together as a team, etc.
  • Hold them accountable – be specific with associates about what’s expected of them in their future role. Ask questions to gain clarity on their understanding and let them know they will be held accountable for ensuring a successful transition.  Remind them that you are there to support them if they are struggling, but it is their responsibility to communicate this with you so you can work together to overcome any hurdles.

Organizational transformation is challenging for everyone; but leaders who utilize the process outlined above, have a strategic advantage over the rest.  You can’t change how people individually respond to change but you can help them move through this internal process more quickly through informative communications, detailed training, and ongoing support.

What additional strategies would you suggest to enlist others in the change journey?  Would love to hear your thoughts on this, so please share in the comments.

 

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