Leading During Change

Change in an organization is always stressful. Even in situations where change can benefit the organization, it still can be accompanied by a great deal of stress. This stress occurs because individuals need to adapt; which then requires people to use their resources,  and step out of their comfort zone. A time of change can be made easier by the organizational leaders, like managers or executives—or even colleagues. This is a moment in which they should offer plenty of support to their colleagues and employees. But how should they do this?

First off—I don’t believe it’s about ‘them’ but about us. We are all leaders regardless of our job title—and we all have the ability to shift people’s mindset during change!

Let’s take a look at some options to do this:

Model the right behaviours

Social learning theory, proposed by Albert Bandura, suggests that people learn through observation. A person learns when they are exposed to a model and may imitate that model or store the information for later use. Some models are more influential than others. In the case of organizational leaders, it is expected that they will model behaviours related to change. If the managers act nervously or in a negative way, it’s likely that others will respond similarly. The leaders have the advantage of being in a role of authority, which makes it likely that people will already be turning to them to see how to react and what is expected. This is an opportunity to teach by example.

Promote openness

An intimidating aspect of change can be the unknown. When people are not sure about how the change will affect them, their role, their job, they might feel more anxious. In a company, especially a big one, rumours may start brewing. Rumours are not usually positive, but negative! This means that it is important to address concerns openly. It is good to give an overview of the planned changes and, if possible, the effects they will have on members of the organization. Sometimes, the changes might not have clear consequences, which is also necessary to address. It is key that employees know their concerns are heard and that the change is being done in an effective way. Honest and adult discussions can help employees feel involved in the process and also can cut down on a lot of unnecessary stress. Even being reassured that they will hear about the impacts as soon as possible (of course, a reassurance that is followed through!) can help people feel more comfortable with the change.

Encourage gratitude and kindness

Some changes might have negative consequences, like layoffs or changes in positions. Others might lead to positive consequences on the long-term, but many short-term difficulties, such as working extra hours or lack of vacations—and all the accompanying stress.  It can be very good for morale to promote kindness and gratitude on an organizational level. Positive psychology, a branch of psychology focused on the study of the positive aspects of human nature with authors such as Martin Seligman, has found that concepts like kindness and gratitude are good for psychological health and well-being. Not a surprise!  The organization that promotes it through example and encourages it, is likely to have more loyal and motivated members. People who feel welcome at their organization are far more likely to go out of their way to help. Kindness and gratitude, like negativity, can become self-perpetuating cycles.  Don’t we want kindness and gratitude everywhere? Yes!

In what ways can kindness and gratitude be encouraged? It is important to offer fair treatment to employees and be flexible with rules when possible. Be clear and open about how meetings will run. Have a process in place to handle disagreements. Listen to people’s feelings (but don’t try to solve them!) Focus on small areas that don’t affect the organization significantly. For example, allowing the person to complete their work in the way that works for them. People tend to remember small acts of kindness and respond in kind. Expressing gratitude means acknowledging the contributions and efforts of different employees and recognizing (and rewarding) this effort when possible. Even when a company is changing and not able to offer material rewards, non-material expressions of gratitude can do a lot to boost morale. Be specific about what you are giving thanks for. Create an ‘encouragement wall’ for people to specifically thank others. Never underestimate the power of words!

There are different tools available for leaders who want to offer support when a change is occurring. It is important to find the tools that fit best and focus on setting a good example. The most important thing is to apply these ideas—not just read the words. You can do it!


copyright Gregg Brown 2017

This is an excerpt from my most recent book, Ready, Set, Change…AGAIN!

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