5 Tips for the Softer Side of Change

You have probably seen much said about leading a team through change and transition.  There are also many frameworks and tools that help leaders deal with managing change.  What is less articulated is the softer side of change.  Here, I am not just speaking of a focus on people.  Nor am I about to give you one more “how to” tips on leading change.  Instead, I would like to focus on the real people interactions of supporting people through change and transition.

Managing Change and Transition

As William Bridges outlines in his classic guide on managing transitions, people experience real emotions when change occurs.  And getting people through the transition after the change is often where we fail.  Use all of the change management tools at your disposal. However once you have done your analysis and planning, consider shifting your attention to the softer side of people connection.

First, you must realize that change is almost always experienced as a loss.  As William Bridges points out, this often triggers emotions that we typically associate with grief.

“transition always starts with an ending. To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old”
― William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes

If you are leading a significant change, understanding this perspective will be vitally important to your success.

Grief is not an easy subject to talk about in the workplace.  We typically talk about it only in terms of personal loss outside of the workplace.  This is unfortunate and leaves leaders with a blind spot in supporting employees.  When we understand that employees experiencing any change often experience similar emotions to that of personal loss, we can become more compassionate and engaged leaders.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gives us a framework for understanding the grief process in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.  She proposes that people go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  In recent years, there have been alternative frameworks proposed and criticism of these five stages.  Most of it centers around a lack of understanding that the stages do not present a sequential and complete process.  It is entirely possible for people to loop in and out of the stages in no particular order.

Rather than getting wrapped up in the accuracy of Kubler-Ross’ framework, let us focus on the fact that people will experience a range of emotions within this spectrum.  Failure to see the emotional aspects of change will leave you with an incomplete strategy of supporting your people through the transition.

5 Tips for Leading Change and Transition

As I work with teams to initiate change in their work, I have found that acknowledging and honoring the emotional side of change helps people to get past their self-imposed resistance to the change.  Here are five practical ways that you can support your team when change happens:

Be a good listener

Being a great communicator means being able to articulate your thoughts well.  It also means being a great listener.  Listen with a “third ear.”  This means that you must hear what they are saying and what they are not saying.  Listen and allow space for them to reflect. Resist the temptation to repeat the “we must change” mantra.  Sit with them in what they are feeling.

Ask strategic questions

Asking strategic questions that will take them to a deeper level of understanding about the change and their role in it.  The first question we may want to ask is “Why?” Asking this question may work against you by putting them on the defensive.  They may feel that they have to “justify” their position or how they feel.  Instead, ask “What does this mean to you?”  Keep the focus on supporting them through the transition process.

Build community

Start in small ways to build community and connection between members of your team.  Create safe spaces for people to gather and talk.  Join them in the discussion with a focus on learning more.  Set clear guidelines and time limits for engaging in different activities.  Facilitate members connecting with and supporting one another. Don’t force it.  Create an environment for it.

Be transparent

Often leaders want to be seen as “strong” in times of change and transition.  Brene Brown calls this leading with courage,

“Show up for people in pain and don’t look away.”
― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

In order to help your people lean into their pain, you must lean into your own.  Lead with candor.  Be clear about where the team is on this journey.  And give them hope that you will all get through it together.

Encourage and equip

When people feel overwhelmed, they can lose focus and inspiration.  Negativity sets in and soon spreads to the entire team.  Offering individual and group encouragement is crucial in helping your team stay out of the negative zone.  Point out what is going well and what hope is on the horizon.  Equip your team with information and knowledge about the change.  People will make up their own stories if you don’t help them understand what is really happening.  Now is also a great time to see if your team may need to learn new skills or embrace new assignments.  Learning together and getting engaged in new work will keep your team future focused rather than dwelling on the past.

These opinions are my own views and perspectives on leading a team through change and transition.

What other soft approaches to managing change and transition have you found effective?

Rebecca Mott is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a self-proclaimed change agent and continuous improvement leader with over 20 years of utility industry experience leading technical teams to solve problems. She currently coaches leaders and teams to apply Lean Six Sigma methodologies and engage by focusing on the power of “we.”

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Maddie Willis

I love these 5 tips, be transparent is my favorite one. It is important to “be clear about where the team is on this journey” because when everyone is up to date and on the same page it makes team work that much easier.

Rebecca H Mott

Absolutely “be transparent.” Some leaders find it difficult and threatening to do so. However, if you want an engaged team, they need to believe that you are being authentic and transparent.

Sherin Shibu

Change management is definitely something that we all encounter, whether we’re the ones driving the change or the ones experiencing it whether we want to or not. The idea of change as a loss is particularly interesting, and I wonder if that applies even if you benefit from the change. Regardless, your tips are useful for leading change within an organization!

Rebecca H Mott

Thank you. I perceive it this way: embracing something new means letting go of something that exists right now. Letting go is easier to do if you are convinced that what you are embracing is far better. For example, buying your dream home may be exciting. But as you pack and reminiscence about your current home, you may experience moments of sadness.

Isaac Constans

These tips are great, and the timing couldn’t be better. With the workforce changes in OPM and across the federal workforce, this can definitely help people.