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Leading Change - What Leaders Need To Do Part 2

In the last episode, we started looking at how we can lead our teams through the change curve.  We looked at the things we need to do through the whole process and in this episode we are going to break it down further and look at the things we need to do at the different stages of change.

Are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices!

Leading Change, Rolling Waves Of Change

About the only certainty, we have in our working worlds at the moment is that we are going to be operating amid rolling waves of change for the foreseeable future.

To simplify things, for now, we are going to look at what we need to do at different phases of the change process thinking about just one change at a time.  In reality, we may be leading multiple changes which are at different points in their change processes, but if we have the right building blocks we can assemble them as we need them for our particular situations.  

This episode builds on the last two, so if you've not listened to them yet, you might want to do that to fill in any gaps, but you don’t have to do it right this second and I promise not all our episodes will build on the ones before.

In ​Episode 2 we looked at the lopsided smile that is the Kubler Ross Change Curve with its 5 phases of denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance.

Getting from Panic to Productivity as we Lead Change

As we lead our teams from the initial panic that comes during denial and anger and back to the performance that comes once change has been accepted, we need to adjust the focus of what we do.   We need to keep being the leader and doing the things leaders do - what changes through the process is what we focus our energy and effort on.

We need to change our expectations and what we are looking to achieve with our teams as they go through the change process, expecting peak performance, or even anywhere near that from your team after you have announced a big change is just not realistic and will actually slow down how you get back to being a high performing team.

Our brains all only have so much working capacity, and change will take up some of that capacity - the bigger the change the more room it will take up leaving less capacity for everything else.  

So our goal when going through change should be to get people to move through the process effectively and get back to being productive.

The 5 stages of the change curve can be split into three sections to guide what we need to do as leaders.  The initial ice-cream brain stage made up of the denial and initial anger, the messy middle which takes us from there through depression and the early stages of bargaining then getting things working as we fine-tune the bargaining and start accepting the changes as our new normal.

We need a different focus at each stage, so let’s take a look at what we need to do in each of them.

The Ice-Cream Brain Phase

The first phase of change is what  I call the Ice Cream Brain Phase.  To some degree, no matter how much change you have been through before at this stage you are going to find yourself unable to think as clearly as you normally do and it’s going to be a bit like when you get a brain freeze from eating too much ice cream - you literally can’t think about anything other than how much it hurts and you have to remember to even breathe! 

Once you’ve caught your breath when you look around you at how you and your team are behaving you are going to notice a wide range of things from hyper productivity as people channel the adrenaline caused by the changes into doing anything and everything possible, usually to try and keep things going as normal, to those who shut down totally and refuse to acknowledge that there is even a possibility that change might be on its way.  When these behaviours aren’t what you are used to seeing in yourself or your team, they are signs that you are still denying that change is happening.  As people start to move beyond denial you are also going to see anger and frustration.

In this phase, our goal is to get people to acknowledge that things are changing.  

Overcoming Initial Resistance When Leading Change

We know people are naturally resistant to change and just telling them once is not going to be enough!  We need to be explaining to people what is changing and why, and we need to keep talking about it consistently and even when we think it has been said way too many times.  People will hear the message at different times depending on when the ice-cream brain freeze melts for them.  The more complex the change the more you are going to need to keep reexplaining it.

We need to talk about what has stayed the same - if you think about a spot the difference picture puzzles, there are always more things that have stayed the same than have changed. It may not feel that way to people and it’s our job to remind them of that as it gives us all a life raft to hold onto as we navigate whatever the changes are.  

Even in the unprecedented levels of change we all experienced as Corona Virus Lockdowns were introduced, there were lots of things that stayed the same for our businesses - who our business served, what we delivered for our clients and importantly our company’s mission.  Often. many of our core business processes stayed the same, its just where we were to execute them that changed.  

It can be a very powerful exercise to list all the things that are not changing when it feels like change is overwhelming.

We and other people are going to feel a sense of loss -  even if the changes are positive, if you think about a time where you moved house or brought a new and exciting car, the chances are a part of you felt sad and you missed something about the old house or car.  Acknowledge what is being lost and keep reminding people about where these changes are taking you.  

Be authentic and human and make time and really listen to the people around you.  Make sure they feel understood and that they know you are there for them.  

When people are feeling lost as they often are at this stage of any change building a sense of connection and community is really important.  As a leader we can create opportunities to connect, even in this remote working world we now all find ourselves in.  I’ve seen lots of great examples recently, things like virtual coffee areas, daily check-ins, calls to just say hello, sharing stories as a team, fancy dress.  You know your team so do what works for them and be ready to try ideas they suggest.  You are going to have to make a conscious effort to up the time you spend communicating with your team and making sure that communication is two way.

The Messy Middle Phase

Next people will enter the messy middle of change - but just to make it even more complex for you, they won’t all do it at the same time! 

Luckily some of the things you needed to do to help people stay the same.  You need to keep talking about what is changing and why.  The pull to go back to how things were will be very strong,  try thinking of the past as a big piece of elastic, initially, you pulled it and it stretched,  but what you do next will determine what happens to that elastic.  If you let it go it just ping back into shape or if you hold on you can keep it stretched.  Early on, the elastic goes back into shape really easily and it’s going to take a while and continued pulling to get it to stay stretched and eventually snap.

The feeling of community and being connected that you are creating will help people pull together on that giant piece of elastic.

Allow People To Process The Changes

Our aim in this messy middle stage is to allow people to process the change.  It is going to feel confusing and quite possibly unsettled for people.  It can be tempting to rush people through this stage but that’s counter-productive.  We don’t want to stay here for any longer than we need to but it is important that we take the time for people to internalise the change and work out what it really means.  If we don’t all that happens is that elastic gets mended and the pull to the previous way of doing things gets stronger.

And the results of that can be devastating - after all, there were reasons you introduced the changes in the first place!  There was one department in a large multinational company I worked with who had experienced this.  Their company was restructuring and they needed to reduce their costs and headcounts.  They introduced the changes, made a few tweaks to how they were organised and what they did and then skipped this middle stage of change and just went back to work.  As a result, people were overloaded with work as they didn’t stop anything they had been doing and just added new things on top, they didn’t understand the changes and the department ended up bigger and more costly than when they started.  That’s when I was called in.  It also made the next round of changes much harder for people as more jobs had to go, they were under more pressure from the organisation and there were more barriers to change to overcome for people.

During the messy middle people are going to have a lot of questions - and even though it may feel like you are surrounded by young kids who keep just asking why for hours - that’s a good sign that they are starting to process the changes.  Being patient and taking time to listen is really important while people are navigating their way through this messy middle.  It can be very tempting to make promises you can’t keep, but that is going to do more harm than good in the long run. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.  The trust you build with people now will make all the difference in the next stage of change.

Building Productivity Phase

And that final stage is Building productivity.  Once people have processed the changes and things are starting to feel more normal we can break those final strands of the elastic and work in the new way.  Our aim at this point is to get things working well again.  Things won’t be perfect right away and we need to be honest with our teams about that. 

Visible Signs When Leading Change 

We know people do what they see us doing rather than what they hear us telling them to do and that as leaders what we do gets noticed more, so we need to be really strict on ourselves about doing things the new way. There have been some very striking examples in the media of country leaders telling everyone they need to wear face coverings and then not doing it themselves, or visiting factories where they are mandatory and not following the rules, and when we are that leader how can we expect others to do things the new way when we won’t. 

Leading by example matters even more than normal as we come out of making changes.  But we are human so when and if we slip up we need to call ourselves out on it, admit it and tell people how we are putting it right.  

How we demonstrate working in a post-change world is only one of the ways we can remind people about the new world and keep them engaged in it.  Adding visible signs that things have changed is very powerful too.  Maybe it’s renaming some of your meetings, maybe it’s putting up posters or redecorating your workspaces, if you still share them, maybe it’s the virtual equivalent like a new template, screen savers or video call backgrounds, you will know what is going to work and be appropriate in your environment.

As you and the team work through the fine details of how you are going to work and perform as a team going forward you get to one of the most exciting parts of any change programme - the part where people start to come up with ideas about how you can make things even better.  

If as a leader you are able to encourage this you will be able to engage the whole team in accelerating your performance and truly delivering the vision you have been describing.

Summary & Taking Action

In this episode I talked about how when we are leading change, we need to keep doing the things we would normally do as a leader but change is what we focus on within that. AS well as the things we need to keep doing, we need to put additional emphasis on different things as we move through the change process and we split that into three main phases. 

The ice-cream brain phase where our aim is to get people to accept that change is happening, the messy middle which is all about getting people to process the changes and answering the questions they have to the best of our ability, and finally, the building productivity phase where we focus on making a new reality work.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.  

And the questions I would like to leave you with are:

If you think about any changes you are leading at the moment, which phase are you in and are you focusing on the right things?