Change will upset people

by Derek Winter


It was those words that stuck with me following a riveting 20 minutes I spent listening to Peter Baines, OAM at the Future of Leadership event recently. As Peter re-counted his experiences leading national and international teams in response to the Tsunami of December 26, 2004 in South East Asia he distilled what he had learnt about effective leadership from those experiences and it was almost a throw away line - “Change will upset people”.

It led me to think about the nature of change and how we navigate it and find a successful approach. It is useful (and perhaps obvious) to think about change in three phases - before hand, during and after - because is the ‘during’ phase that requires the most effort and troubles the most people.

Before change occurs, there’s often energy and excitement considering ‘What might be’, imagining a better reality in the future whether it be a new job, a renovated room or new levels of fitness.

Afterwards, when the dust has settled and we’re living the new reality, life is good again and once adjusted people enjoy the benefits of whatever it is that’s new.

It’s in the middle of it that things get hard. When the dust is flying, the walls have been knocked down and we’re sick of tradesmen traipsing through our house that it becomes challenging. At this point, it can become difficult to remember why we were doing this in the first place. We can feel the loss of what’s gone, we’re feeling the disruption of what’s going on, but we can't see or feel the future.

That’s the point at which people get upset. The past felt so much safer. The way I used to do things seemed to flow easily and I knew what I was doing. I’m not so sure of the benefits of what we’re doing anymore. How can this current mess ever turn out the way we imagined?

So, in those times, in the middle of the pain and discomfort, what do we do to get through. How do we support people to carry on. How do we hold onto the what motivated us to embark on this change in the first place?

As much as possible, those affected most by the change should be involved in the decision making. If the decision impacts a team, they decide together. If the decision impacts more people, they have collective input and an ability to shape the nature of the change. The more involvement and visibility of the changes coming down the line, the more acceptance and ability to hang on through the process.

If widespread involvement is not possible, those affected by the change should initially be informed about the changes by their peers. Particularly if the changes are or will be interpreted as negative, it is important that the information doesn’t come from distant leadership, but from respected peers. We are more likely to accept information from our peers and take a positive outlook than from those ‘at a distance’ from us.

Find a ‘sell’ in the future situation that represents an opportunity or advantage for those affected or highlights problems and disadvantage with the status-quo. Change tends to be resisted or create discomfort precisely because we are comfortable in our present situation. Even if it is “better the devil you know”. Allowing people to find a purpose in the changes ahead provides a positive motivation for acceptance and support as opposed to a sense of loss and disruption.

Culture - “The way we do things around here” is a powerful thing and by embarking on changes in organisations we are going to affect culture and be affected by culture. If the changes ahead will disturb the existing culture this needs to be acknowledge early and the slow nature of cultural change understood and embraced. Alternatively if there are cultural norms that will assist the group through change, again acknowledge and embrace those strengths collectively and visibly.

The social structure within a group or organisation is more significant than the organisational structure. Relationships across an organisation affect how we embrace change, and as alluded to above, we look to our peers for confirmation and validation regarding how we react and embrace change. Find the relational threads and use the strength of relationships to galvanise the energy and support for the changes ahead.

In speaking to Leaders, part of Peter’s advice was to Lead with Sensitivity and Lead with Simplicity. In all of this, it is important not to loose site of individuals. Each of us reacts in different ways and at different times. So, throughout any change, it is important to give people the space and permission they need to work through whatever issues it raises. To respect and acknowledge any pain or discomfort they might go through. But always to support, encourage and respect them.