How Leaders Can Help Employees Through Change

By Whit Mitchell

For many people, change can be uncomfortable. They find comfort in the way things have been done and instinctively try to go back to the way things were. Back to where patterns are known, and there are no surprises. 

Others see change as an opportunity to be more creative and be more opportunistic.
Some people love change, but most don’t.

When I work with companies that are going through some kind of transition, I usually do a quick activity with them, in an effort to help them break through the wall of resistance. I start by asking everyone in the room to simply put their wristwatches on the other wrist. After an hour, I ask people to raise their hands if they kept the watch on the other wrist, and typically only a third of people kept it there. Most of them just couldn’t stand the change.

Some of your reaction to change is in your DNA. Your behavioral styles will determine whether you adapt well to change.

Change is good, but you go first.
In an organization, change often produces anxiety, especially when there is not enough explanation for the change. When companies don’t pair change with communication, employees can regress into fear, supposition and gossip—none of which are healthy for an organization, especially one navigating new policies, procedures and the like. 

The first thing leaders can do to help their teams through change is to be as transparent as possible. For example, if a company is bought by a larger company and duplicate positions need to be eliminated, this information should be communicated as soon as possible so people can understand where they fit or don’t fit. The alternative is that your employees will see the writing on the wall, and you will foster a culture of disloyalty if they don’t perceive that they are valuable enough to be told about position changes.

Sometimes you can’t give out all of the information due to stock or stakeholder issues, but even communicating that fact is better than saying nothing. Talk about as much as you can, meeting with each member of team. Leaders can gently predict without giving assurances: “Here’s what I could foresee in your position, but it’s not guaranteed …”. 

Second, leaders should give employees strategies for dealing with change. Since change management is personal, help each of your employees work though it in their own way. Guide them by asking questions such as, “When is the last time you experienced significant change? What did you do to get through that change? What worked and what didn’t? What could you have done differently?” 

If you can successfully help people navigate the change process, you will end up with employees who have an increased level of trust and are more confident in their own abilities. Confidence breeds success and once they experience a positive change experience, they won’t be so afraid of change next time.

When people are more confident, they can be more creative and will begin to challenge each other, test the status quo and help the company get to the next level. Employees will experience personal growth, the team will grow, and the organization will grow.

Change can be a great thing. Think about Google: there has been tremendous change in that company from when it started until now, and they continue on the pathway of constant change and high growth. They’ve created a culture that is based on creativity and change, and their employees are happy and engaged, even with the amount of change in their industry. 

Ask yourself, when was the last time you made a significant change that didn’t result in growth? People who can grab onto change can grab onto opportunity.