The surprising way to manage change so that people actually get behind it | Tuff Ledarskapsträning

Marina Marklund Marina Marklund 8 maj, 2024

Managing change initiatives – big and small – is challenging. According to research by Gartner, in 2022 the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes (for example, a restructure, a culture transformation, or the replacement of a legacy tech system). Compare that to 2016 when the number of changes was just two.

What’s more, the same survey revealed that employees’ willingness to support the change had dropped to just 43%, compared to 74% in 2016. And we all know the statistics by now about the number of change initiatives that fail, despite best efforts.

So how on earth can leaders support people and teams to get on board with change initiatives?

In our experience, one of the biggest pitfalls is that managers focus all their energy on what should be communicated and how they should roll out this information. And of course this provokes all kinds of reactions that are often difficult to deal with like shock, disappointment, disagreement, apathy… It’s no wonder, then, that many managers resort to different (survival) strategies to ensure the message lands in the best possible way and that people don’t lose motivation. Strategies like:

  • Talking a lot
  • Trying to anticipate all possible questions and the ‘perfect’ responses
  • Persuading or convincing people, trying to ‘sell’ the idea
  • Being overly positive, trying to inspire or motivate
  • Withholding certain information (“It’s best for them not to know that yet”)
  • Using the carrot or the stick

At Tuff, we coach leaders and managers who are wrestling with this every day. Every single one is burdened with some version of this question: “How can I get [this person/my team] to do [something]?” For example, how can I get Alina to buy into this change? How can I get my team to a place where they are motivated and engaged in this change?

This driving question stems from the notion that it is the leader’s job to motivate employees, to inspire them, to get them on board… instead of realising that motivation and commitment need to come from within if you want any change to be successful.

This is nothing new, of course. Many of us have seen Daniel Pink’s TED talk or know about intrinsic motivation. So why the knowing-doing gap? And how do we shift it?

The main reason is: we don’t realise how automatic and unconscious these bad habits are. And we don’t realise there is another way (besides, perhaps, doing nothing and hoping for the best!).

When we train leaders in change management (a phrase which is itself a bit of a contradiction!), we focus on first stopping all of the usual (automatic) strategies. And if you stop doing all of those things, what do you do instead?

The main activity becomes: listening. Allowing reactions, protests, objections to be without ‘putting a lid’ on them or trying to solve them. The purpose is for people to air out all of their thoughts and feelings so that they feel heard and ‘seen’, which then enables them to start to engage in constructive dialogue where the choice to ‘say yes’ to the change lies with them.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Most of us have fears and fantasies about what might happen if we do listen. These often play out like voices in our heads.

  • If I listen…
    • they might think I’m agreeing!
    • I’ll have to do something about what they say!
    • they might say things that aren’t accurate and I can’t not correct them!
    • it might ‘blow up’, or get worse!
    • I’ll lose control and won’t know what to do!

Which ones do you recognise? Once we identify the mindset(s) that are in the way for us to really listen, it becomes easier to catch them when they get a hold of us. And then we can take a breath, and choose something (rather than being in autopilot). (You can read more about listening and some of our favourite ways to practise it in this blog.)

In summary, supporting others through change involves an inner shift in ourselves first, and then there are some practical things we can do to support the other person (and ourselves) in having fruitful conversations.

Here are some tips from us:

  • Investigate your own relationship to the change initiative (if it was decided by someone else) – can you ‘own’ it yourself? Can you find your own productive mindset in relation to this change, even if you disagree with it?
  • Be curious about your survival strategies – what do you usually tend to do when the going gets tough? How do you end up being? Is your pitfall being a ‘positive stinker’ (taking others’ negative reactions and trying to find a positive spin)? Do you become argumentative? Impatient?
  • Take the time to listen to all reactions that come up – not just the words, but also to what’s unsaid, to the underlying feelings
  • Put words to what you hear – summarise, name the themes, paraphrase so that people feel ‘heard’
  • Relate to all reactions as good news – much better for everything to be out in the open now than the discontent to slowly poison the atmosphere over the months to come
  • When you allow all feelings and objections to exist, it might seem like you’re making things worth but it’s exactly the opposite – what you allow to exist eventually loses energy and charge
  • When emotions begin to subside, there is an opportunity for people to become constructive. Here you can give people the chance to find their way and their mindset in relation to this change by asking coaching questions such as:
    • How could you see this change in a way that would work for you?
    • How do you want to approach this change?
    • What would you need in order to make peace with this change?

To learn more about this approach, we run regular free webinars called ‘Stop Motivating Your Employees!’. Sign up here for an upcoming session.

Or you can contact us at info@tuffleadershiptraining.com to learn more.

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