Change Is Hard. Here’s How to Make It Less Painful.

Every leader has had the experience of unveiling an organizational change — a new system or process, a corporate restructure, a shift in the business model — and getting a less-than positive response from their team. Sometimes the reaction is subtle: lowered eyes, tightened lips, silence. With a more confident or vocal team, you might get questions about whether the change is necessary, complaints about “yet another thing to do,” and lots of reasons why this just isn’t a good time for a big shift.

Why is change so hard for us?

Blame our history as a species. Until the past few generations, most people’s lives stayed very much the same from beginning to end: people grew up where their parents had grown up, did the work their parents had done, believed and knew the things previous generations had believed and known. Change, when it came, was generally an aberration and a danger.

But these days, the world is different. Major change happens moment to moment — economically, environmentally, sociologically, politically, and organizationally. Given all this, we need to re-wire ourselves to be more comfortable with and open to change; we need to become more change-capable.

Shifting Our Mindset

I’ve been fascinated by change and our human response to it my whole adult life. In 1990, when I founded Proteus International, a coaching, consulting, and leadership development training firm, our mission was focused on change: We help clients clarify and move toward their hoped-for future. That remains our mission today, and in working with clients over the years to make large and small changes in their organizations, my colleagues at Proteus and I have observed what happens when an individual embraces a proposed change: there’s a simple, predictable, and powerful pattern. We’ve come to call this pattern “The Change Arc.”

When a change is first proposed, most people immediately want to know three things: what does this change mean to me, why is it happening, and what will it look like when the change has been made? We gather this information intuitively, in order to begin to assess the level of risk and difficulty involved in the change.

As people begin to ask these questions, their initial mindset (again, based on many thousands of years of change being seen as a threat) is usually that the change will be difficult, costlyand weird. Difficult means, “I don’t know how to do this, and/or other people are going to make it hard for me to do this.” Costly means, “this will take from me things I value.” This may be time or money, but is likely to involve more intrinsic and invisible valuables like identity, power, reputation, or relationships. And weird just means strange and unnatural: “this isn’t the way we do things around here.”

In observing this pattern, in our clients and in ourselves, we noticed that people only begin to be open to accepting, embracing, and making a change when their mindset starts to shift from “this change is going to be difficult, costly, and weird ” to “this change could be easy, rewarding, and normal.” Once someone starts to believe that a change could be easy (or at least doable) to make; that the rewards of making the change will outweigh the costs; and that the change could become normal – that is, that it could be “the way we do things,” then that person starts to be willing to operate in the new ways the change requires – they’ll learn and do the new behaviors, and the change can occur.

Unfortunately, people often get “stuck” in their initial negative mindset about a change, and refuse (either quietly or overtly) to support it. And organizations and their leaders aren’t very skilled at helping their people make that mindset shift. There’s a well-known statistic from McKinsey & Co. that organizational 70% of change efforts fail, and that the primary reasons for that level of failure are lack of management support and employee buy-in. From our observation, that lack of support and buy-in are a consequence of people staying in the “difficult, costly, and weird” mindset about a change, and not being helped to see the change in a more neutral or even positive way.

How Leaders Can Support the “Easy, Rewarding, and Normal” Mindset

So, how can you, as a leader, better support your people to make the mindset shift that will allow them to embrace change — to become more change-capable? By using “change levers.” Like physical levers, change levers are force multipliers that help accelerate people through their mindset shift around change. These are powerful tools for supporting your people through their change arc more quickly and easily, allowing changes to be adopted successfully. Here are four straightforward approaches you can take.

Increase understanding.

The first thing people want is foundational information about the change. Too often, organizations communicate a change in a cheery, superficial way (“We’re going to be converting to a new invoicing system — and it’s great!”) that doesn’t provide what people need — and, in fact, can increase their sense of risk. It’s most helpful to create and communicate a simple summary of the change that outlines:

  • what it is
  • why it’s happening
  • the better future you’ll have, post-change

For instance, instead of the superficial message above, this summary might sound like this:

“We’re going to be converting to a new invoicing system that’s based on a platform that will work seamlessly with our current CRM. We’re making this change based on feedback from both our clients and our salespeople that the current system takes too long and yields too many errors. Once we’ve made the transition, which we believe will take about four months, including the training we’ll be offering to all system users and the behind-the-scenes work to transfer the information, invoicing will be much simpler, faster, and more accurate — as both clients and salespeople have requested.”

It’s important that this summary be realistic — that it acknowledges the time and effort the change will require — and that it lets people know how you’ll support them (with information, training, etc.) to make the change. Once you’ve created this “case for change,” expect (and be prepared to answer) questions about it. Because we’re wired to believe that most change is dangerous, we generally only shift to a more neutral or positive view when we get the necessary information, stories, and experience to help us frame it differently.

Clarify and reinforce priorities.

Letting people know what isn’t changing as well as what is changing can be very reassuring. Quite often, even a major change won’t have much impact on people’s key priorities.

Let’s say that you’re reorganizing your salesforce into industry verticals, away from a geographic focus. By confirming that the roles and responsibilities of the account managers, inventory and planning people, and sales support staff will remain largely the same — and that the overall sales goals aren’t changing either — you can help people focus on what needs to change, Instead of worrying about all the things that will be staying very much the same.

So rather than saying some version of, “Don’t worry, not everything is changing!” You might say something more specific to clarify the priorities: “Though we’ll be reorganizing the existing sales teams to work in category verticals, and your sales goals will be industry-specific, your core priorities are still to build and maintain great client relationships while meeting your financial targets.”

Give control.

Especially with large-scale organizational change, employees can feel at the mercy of forces over which they have no say. By giving your people as many choices as possible during the change, you can reduce their fear and discomfort and increase the chances of engagement and buy-in.

A few years ago, we were working with a US-based multinational company that had just acquired another company, headquartered in Latin America. The CHRO of the acquired company was worried about the change — she assumed the acquiring company would impose their systems, that she would have less influence, and that they might not understand or respect some of the HR policies necessary in their part of the world. She assumed the change would be difficult, costly, and weird.

Her new boss gave her control in a variety of ways. He worked with her to come up with the timing for the transition to the new systems, and he asked her to create a communication plan for how and when she wanted to announce the changes to her team. He also invited her to outline any LATAM-specific HR practices that she and her team would need to continue that weren’t part of the larger company’s HR processes. Giving her some elements of control in this way helped shift her mindset from negative to more supportive of the change; she began to focus on how to make the change easier and more rewarding for her team and for the rest of the acquired company’s employees.

Give support.

Finally, but in some ways most importantly, your people need consistent support throughout any change that affects them directly. Too often, leaders try to talk people out of what they’re feeling or even just ignore it — assuming they’ll eventually “get with the program.”

It’s critical to remember that, as a leader, by the time you communicate a change to your people, you’ve generally had some time to go through your own change arc. But we often expect our employees to be as accepting of the change from that first moment as we are after our own months of thought, questioning, and mindset shift.

Give them a little time to be worried, to hesitate, to ask questions, to want to know the impact on them, even to be sad or anxious. Listen. Summarize their concerns and ask what you can do to address them. Rather than labeling it “resistance,” recognizing they’re going through the same arc you went through: they need to understand and process the proposed change and then move through their mindset shift about the change.

If you give people support in the early days of a change by listening deeply to their concerns and questions, without being dismissive or overly reassuring, they’ll feel heard and supported. “You’re concerned about how much time it’s going to take to learn this new system,” you might say, “and given all that’s on our plates, that’s a legitimate worry.” If you take in and summarize their concerns in this way, honestly and neutrally, they’ll most likely be open to hearing about the more tangible support you can offer: training, tools, demos or simulations, mentors, or affinity groups.

. . .

As a leader, if you can understand that initial fear and hesitation around change are normal — rather than assuming it means that people are “change-resistant” or “negative” — and support your people through the necessary mindset shift, you’ll be much better able to build a critical mass of people who will understand, accept, and adopt the change reasonably quickly. More important, you’ll be helping your people to become more change-capable overall: to create skills and habits of mind to approach change in a more neutral, open way, and therefore to be better able to navigate all the changes that will arise in this new era.

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