As a leader, supporting your people through change can feel relentless. It is often exhausting and frustrating.
Sometimes you may not feel like you’re leading at all, rather you feel like you’re dragging, pushing, pulling, cajoling and fighting tantruming toddlers. Or like you’re stuck in one of those nightmares where you’re trying to move forward but your legs don’t work. Leading through change is hard and it can be tempting to just shout, “Bad luck! You just have to get on with it. Suck it up”. But while strongarming change might feel good in the moment, the simple fact is - it doesn’t work. People can’t simply 'get on with it' and ignore their emotions, fears and concerns, so as their leader you can’t either.
Change is inherently challenging. Our brains are wired for comfort and certainty, seeking routine, patterns, habits and shortcuts. When faced with change, our natural response is often caution, apprehension and defensiveness as a protection mechanism against a perceived threat. Understanding the basic neuroscience behind our reactions and resistance to change can help us understand how to effectively address it. The amygdala, a primitive part of our brain often referred to as the 'reptilian brain', interprets change as a threat to our safety and control, triggering the fight, flight or freeze response. Even seemingly small or positive changes can trigger anxiety, confusion, distraction, and resistance, all of which can have damaging effects in the workplace.
While humans are capable of adapting to change over time or when forced to do so (as seen through evolution and our response to the COVID pandemic), there are some basic needs we cling to that change can threaten. These needs are captured in Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, and include basics such as employment, a sense of belonging, respect, status, freedom, recognition and self-esteem. When these fundamental needs are threatened, people may become stuck and resistant to change.
Other factors that may lead to change resistance include:
- Feeling we are losing something
- Disagreeing there is a need for change
- Disagreeing with the solution
- Being unsure of the implications of change on us
- If we were told not consulted
- Having change fatigue or work overload
- Having experienced poor change in the past
Expect emotions, prepare for feelings
Acknowledging emotions and preparing for the feelings of our people is crucial when leading through change. Feelings and emotions underpin all human behaviour, driving our choices, decisions, performance and actions. As Dale Carnegie wrote in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People way back in 1936: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion”.
People drive performance but if we don’t pay attention to how they feel about change or invest time and energy in hearing their concerns, they’ll drive problems instead. These problems may show up in the form of distraction, conflict, disagreements, complaints, increased stress leave, a poor culture and resignations. To successfully lead people through change, their feelings must be addressed.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response
It’s important to recognise that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' response to change. People are affected by change in different ways, they respond in different ways, have different histories and past experiences of change, and different communication styles. As a leader, you must be prepared to adapt and adjust. The key is to expect emotion - in both yourself and others. Don’t be angered or surprised by it. Your people are having a normal human reaction to the challenges, uncertainties and changes they’re facing. That doesn’t excuse poor behaviour and you still have to hold your people accountable, but it is important to consider the context that behaviour sits in. Take a step back and consider the various ways change may impact your people, and don’t be surprised if you get a whole gamut of responses within your team.
Slow down to go fast
Expecting your team to 'just get on with it' when dealing with change is a misguided approach. Organisational change won’t stick unless your people change. Even if you change processes, structure, policies and tasks within your business, if your people are not on board your change will not be successful. When you try to push through a change too fast, without bringing your people along with it, you’ll actually slow down the process rather than speed it up, because implementation and acceptance will be slower.
Investing the time upfront to address emotions and feelings will ultimately save you time by minimising resistance and people-related issues in the long run. Empathise and acknowledge how a person is feeling about the change, clearly explain why the change is needed, and guide them towards acceptance so they can choose their response rather than get stuck in a negative reaction. You don’t need to be a psychologist, counsellor or emotional intelligence expert to do this. You simply need to be human and to connect with the humanity of your team members.