More so than ever right now, teams are working in a fully remote or hybrid way. This means it’s more important than ever to have effective change management strategies in place, to suit this new way of working.
For leaders, an important part of this is making sure that we do everything in our power to make our hybrid and remote teams feel appreciated and listened to. When organizations take an approach to change management that is process-driven, systematic, and transactional, ultimately these essential ingredients can get lost.
We live in a world that is driven forward by rapid innovation and technological advancement, at a rate that if we’re being honest, many of us find quite overwhelming. Whilst as human beings, we are also growing and changing all the time, we don’t evolve at quite the same rate and deep down we all have the same fundamental needs that have always been there – to feel valued, respected, and like what we have to say matters. It’s very natural, therefore, that as humans we’re wary of change, and change management strategies that account for that are much more likely to succeed.
The human side of change management
When I work with clients undergoing organizational change, I often encounter the following scenario. I’ll meet with the leadership team of the company and ask them how they’re handling their merger or other big organizational change and spend fifteen minutes or more listening to a discussion of workstreams, processes, organizational structures, and systems, without a single mention of people. At that point, I always have a few questions for them. How have their teams reacted to the news? What will it mean for their roles within the company? What message are they receiving about why this is happening? All too often, the answer seems to be more of an afterthought.
Many discussions of change management revolve around the “what” of the change, rather than the “why” and “how”, which are equally, if not more important. If you want your team to accept any kind of organizational change, then they need to know why it’s happening, what the benefits will be, and how their role will change as a result. Involving them in these conversations in a meaningful way will show them that you value their opinions and are taking them into account in your decisions. After all, our teams are what make the work we do possible, and their wellbeing should be at the forefront of all decisions we make.
Tips for team centered change management
1. Never lose sight of the “why” – you will probably have heard the quote “life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.” (Charles Swindoll) As humans, we’re emotional creatures and even the most rationally minded of us will have an instinctive emotional reaction to change. This is why the “why” is so much more important than the “what” – we are not computers that can take new information and process it in a neutral way; it’s human nature to want to know why something is happening, especially when it could result in fundamental changes to everyday life. Make the time to explain the “why” to your team so that everyone is on the same page.
2. Make sure your messaging is aligned – if you want change to be successful and accepted within the business, all of your leaders and people managers will need to approach their teams with the same language. It’s easy to think during discussions of change management that everyone is aligned around a particular message, only to discover that each member of the leadership team has delivered the message to team members in a completely different way. Ensure that everyone in the leadership team maintains a consistent tone and adopts the same language to address the change with their team to spread positivity and alignment behind the change.
3. Include responses to change in leadership training – dealing with the wide variety of possible reactions to change from team members is not something that’s often covered in leadership training, but it’s a gap that needs to be addressed. If handled properly, change can be a great opportunity to edify your team and give your managers the skills to become better leaders. However, this can only be achieved if managers approach discussions about business change with an intentional positivity and unified vision for the future of the business.
4. Pay special attention to behavior – what are the reasons why team members may be resistant to or fearful of this change? To make sure you are getting your positive, optimistic vision of the future across to them, you need to be acutely aware of any potential roadblocks. Discussing the language you will use to talk about the change, and how to assuage any doubts your team could conceivably have about what’s happening, is crucial to a smooth transition. Regular communications about what’s going on, even if there isn’t much to report at times, is also key for putting your team at ease.
5. Make storytelling your superpower – a great way to convey the why and tap into positive emotions in your team is to give them a story they can get behind about why this change is happening. The facts and figures may satisfy their logical side, but their emotional side needs a vision of what the future could look like that goes beyond the numbers. Give positive examples of how the current situation could be improved by the change, and what opportunities it will bring about for the team, and for specific individuals. This may be something you can actively work on with the leadership team if they’re not natural storytellers.
6. Give your team space to express themselves – your team are more than likely to have many questions, thoughts, and feelings about what’s happening, and it’s important that they feel able to share those with you. Make space for discussion amongst the team about the change, and your team will feel included in the change and motivated to embrace it as an opportunity. It’s also important to be proactive rather than waiting for issues to arise before having a meeting – make a point of scheduling discussions about change for their own sake before doubts are given the chance to form.
7. Give your team a purpose you can control – at times of great change when a lot is still up in the air, as humans we naturally feel a little uneasy. To counteract this within your team, it helps to have something concrete to rally behind like a shared project or objective. This could be anything from a work charity initiative to simply maintaining a great service whilst undergoing organizational change. You don’t need to shy away from talking about the things that are currently out of your control about what’s happening, just make sure that you also have meaningful goals to work on that put the uncontrollables in perspective.
8. Emphasise the opportunities for everyone – change can bring opportunity, but it can also have less welcome consequences. It may mean that positions or indeed whole teams are cut out of the picture. It’s important to make sure that everyone in the organization feels safe and supported, and can view it as an opportunity even if it will involve some upheaval. I once worked with a global healthcare organization who were relocating one of their UK offices to Eastern Europe, which meant one of their UK teams was disbanding. The way they handled this change with the team in question was excellent – those who wanted to stay were given a range of opportunities including training programs and the opportunity to gain recognized qualifications. These opportunities for development offset the sense of uncertainty about the future and made the team feel valued and motivated.
9. Be reactive to ongoing change – it’s always tempting to bury your head in processes and implementation, but when you’re dealing with a big change that’s exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. Successful organizational change happens when team leaders are constantly monitoring change on an organizational and team level, and the effects that it is having. What’s resonating, what needs more attention, and what really isn’t working and needs a rethink or scrapping altogether? These are all questions that need to be asked if you want to manage change in an efficient and agile way.
10. Live the change – being a positive role model for your team is something I talk about a lot in my articles and sessions with clients, and it’s doubly important in times of change. Your team looks to you to know how to manage and react to new situations at work, and if you’re not acting in alignment with the new vision, you can’t expect them to. We’ve discussed the importance of using the right language and tone when talking about change with your team, but if your actions don’t match your words then the change is doomed to fail.
In any change management strategy, my team always supports clients to think through our three pillars of change: what we believe, how we behave, and the tools we use. The first two are very often overshadowed by the third, but the tools – action plans, processes, systems, etc… – are largely irrelevant to our teams without a vision and a rationale for change. The need to understand why is a very human desire (along with the need for value, appreciation, and respect). By accounting for human nature in our change management approach, we can build greater trust within our team and motivate and inspire them to embrace change in a much more impactful way.