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Blog Post

Lead Change Management by Understanding Your Team

By Matt Whiat, Founding Partner

Leading a change management process, in any organization, can be difficult. Change is hard. Change takes time. People don’t like change. Change is necessary. Those who do not change are doomed!

What do all these statements have in common? They are all opinion. And that’s a fact. I could argue that any of those points is true but rather than adding another opinion to the mix, citing an academic study or delving into the biology of the human brain, I want to offer a tool we’ve used with clients and within our team.

Most leaders desire that their team members are flexible, adaptable, innovative. All of those attributes are great – but it’s hard to behave flexible and if it’s hard to behave, it’ll prove even harder to teach. What we’ve learned is that if you’re trying to increase your team’s ability to process change, you need to build camaraderie. It makes sense that before you lead your people through change, it helps when you understand how people process it and the best way to understand that is through building a sense of trust and unity.

So back to the tool.

During a meeting with your team (or even better, an off-site or retreat where they’re mentally AND physically away from their work), ask each person to think of two changes they’ve gone through in their life. The first has to be a change they chose and the second has to be a change that was chosen for them. (“Inflicted on them” if you want stronger language…) As they come up with their situations, label 4 corners of the room A, B, C, D with the following descriptors:

A: Hell Yes: Ready to Go!
B: Maybe: I need more information
C: Load the Cannons: Actively Resist
D: Oh Sh**: This is terrifying

Once you’ve given a few minutes for reflection, ask each participant to think of their two changes and ask the group to move to their respective label for the change they chose.

Before I share how we’d facilitate this, I want to pause and share that this activity works best – as most challenging conversations do – when you as the leader can share your own stories. Let me be a bit more bold: show some vulnerability. It’s often, for better or worse, the person with the most “power” or “influence”in the room that sets the level for which people will share. For example, if I were leading this activity, I would share two changes in my life that I don’t normally talk about – getting a divorce and transitioning from the military into a new profession. I share these stories not to be manipulative with my vulnerability but to set the tone of trust in the discussion and allow your people to hopefully feel comfortable enough to do the same.

When everyone has settled on their letter, ask for a few people in each group to share a quick story about their change and reaction to it, the reasoning behind why they chose that spot to stand. Next, have the group think about the change that was chosen for them and request they move to the label that most closely represents their feelings at that time.

After the group moves and settles on their label, ask again for a few people to share from each group the change and why they selected that label. While the participants will be learning the difference between how they react to the two different types of change, what can you as their leader learn from watching the movement of people and their stories?

I’ve facilitated this experience with a variety of audiences around the world. When participants are asked to move into the respective areas for change they chose, it is common to see more people in the “ready to go” category. That’s logical. After all, why would you ask for it or do it if you weren’t ready for it? And yet you will have people in the “need more information” and “this is terrifying” camp. Rarely will you see people in the “actively resist” area, but it happens as well. When we transition groups into the change that was chosen for you, people typically move away from “ready to go” and into the other areas.

So what? What we’re discovering is that how each person processes change depends deeply on the context of the change -­ regardless of industry, culture, generation, work experience, etc. As a leader you might think this article is like a slinky—interesting to watch and yet, not exactly useful. However, understanding that change is deeply contextual is the empathetic mindset servant leaders need to have before jumping into change management.

If each person processes a change differently depending on the context for them, then how do leaders find the common denominator for all constituents and lead the group through the change? Going back to the beginning, how do you build camaraderie in spite of those differences? A lot of change management revolves around the transmitting of just the right message. I emphasize ‘just’ because how does perfectly crafting an email delivering a tornado of change soften the blow?

A servant leader’s job is to understand their team well enough to articulate why the change is needed and outline all the steps the organization will take to ensure the change is successful. Again, with them and how they’ll react (i.e. differently) in mind.

Learn more about our Lead Through Change workshop that we can bring on-site to your organization.

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