The overnight transformation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was, in many ways, once in a lifetime. In other ways, it was the beginning of a new, ongoing era of uncertainty, bringing plenty of anxiety — but also boundless opportunity for progress.
If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s change. The companies that thrive in the future of work will be those that foster agility and prepare their people to weather unexpected challenges.
Change management is leadership
Leaders are charged with nurturing teams to achieve their full potential, making change the ultimate test of leadership. Amid change that’s outside of a leader’s control, the priority is to make change as manageable as possible. There are three key factors in achieving this:
- Knowing the “why”
- Specific, shared expectations
- Clear and ongoing communication
Knowing the “why”
Simply put, change is more manageable when you understand why it’s happening. The narratives people create when left in the dark are often worse than the reality. When a team is able to start with the same basic understanding of why a change is taking place, whether it’s as vast as a re-organization or as small as a policy alteration, it’s much easier for everyone to move through the change in the same direction.
You can also boost buy-in around change by helping others to understand how they benefit, directly or otherwise. For example, when introducing a new process or technology everyone is expected to use, make clear how it will save time and effort. In this way, leaders can set the tone for how change is received.
Specific, shared expectations
Any time change is introduced into the workplace, people are left wondering: “Now what?” As in, “What’s expected of me?”, or “How does this impact my day-to-day?” Leaders can create a shared sense of control by setting clear expectations and milestones, allowing people on their team to act confidently through the change.
For example, any time a pivotal member of the team leaves, questions will inevitably arise around how their absence will impact others’ role boundaries and workload. Anticipating these questions, having frank conversations about individual concerns, and leaving the door open for ongoing support is crucial.
Of course, setting expectations might also mean acknowledging the reality that things are uncertain. You might not have all the answers at any given moment, and you can’t truly lead until you admit that.
Clear and ongoing communication
As the facts change, communication becomes complicated. A difficult balance must be struck between keeping people informed and limiting confusion. It becomes more important than ever to be intentional about how you’re sharing information.
To put it another way, “over-communicate” doesn’t have to mean creating information overload. Be consistent about how, where, and when information is shared. There should be multiple avenues for employees to stay up-to-date and ask questions, but they also should be able to “keep up” without having to check a variety of sources. Identify a single source-of-truth location for information related to the change, lead with the most important details, and highlight action items so they won’t be missed.
Pro Tip: Bravely Pro and leadership coach Pauline Stylianou says: “A majority of employees prefer to receive personal messages about changes directly from their managers, who are well-positioned to support them through change. If your team first learns about a change through company-wide communication channels, it’s critical that you follow up with them in your 1:1 and team meetings.”
If you're asked a question you don't have an answer to, be honest about not knowing, and be explicit about how and when updates will be shared. We naturally crave information — it's easier to work when you have all the facts. When those facts aren't available, “meta-communicating” (eg., “I will share an update on Thursday”) offers some clarity and peace of mind.
Change is never easy, but the difficulty and discomfort is where growth comes from. Even as a leader, you shouldn’t forget to check in with yourself and make sure your own needs are being met. Give yourself credit for navigating change and making it to the other side. You learn something new each time you exercise your resilience and agility, helping you to be even more prepared for the next inevitable wave of change.