I’ve been thinking this week about change. I wrote earlier about how my division of my company had been acquired. In the period that followed, I saw numerous individuals in a key moment, as they led their organization through change. Some were more helpful than others.
Here are a few things that worked well.
Talk about integrity and alignment. Usually, big shifts are not sudden. They are the result of a logical progression, culminating in change. In these moments, the most effective leaders reiterate their commitment to their core beliefs. They point out ways in which they did what they said they would do. They take the time to sell the shared vision to their teams again. They talk about first principles, the things that remain the same, and why the decision makes sense in light new circumstances while serving these shared, unchanged goals. They acknowledge inconsistencies, and ask their teams, when ready, to buy-in to their vision once again.
Focus on your audience’s needs. This seems so simple, but many leaders were unable to put aside their own preoccupations to focus on the needs of their teams. Numerous leaders phrased the decision in terms of their own incentives, rather than taking the time to step back, and consider their audience.
And their number one need is probably safety. I was shocked by the degree to which my own emotions focused on concerns at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–my job security, my benefits, my belonging, my logistics. Everyone thinks about themselves first in these moments, and it is difficult, in the midst of change, for organizations to make commitments to make people feel safe. Effective leaders talked about intentions, gave evidence of behavior in line with those intentions, or took the time to tell a positive story of their employees current situation. Even the awareness that safety was an issue of concern made leaders’ communication so much more effective. This proved to be a tricky topic: the more senior you are in an organization, the more alternatives you have, and the less safety is an issue. It takes empathy to remember the concerns you would have had a few years before and give a compassionate, resonant response.
Understand the role of time. Accepting change is not instantaneous; it’s a process. Leaders who were most helpful had multiple conversations. They provided space for their teams to ask questions, over several days, through sequential discussions. They gave time and space to absorb, reflect, and move forward. And, crucially, they allowed themselves space privately to process–communicating a positive view of the future while patiently giving their teams the gift of time.
These are straightforward ideas, but easy to forget in the confusion and excitement of imminent change. The best leaders were able to act on these simple, difficult concepts–and provided an incredible benefit to their teams as a result.