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Change is inevitable: How to lead and inspire during times of transformation

Manager and employee collaborating at work

A middle manager’s guide to motivating employees during an unexpected change

Being a middle manager can be hard… being a middle manager during organizational change? That’s an even tougher challenge. 

I have experienced successes and failures as a leader through five major organizational shifts throughout my career. 

Now I am able to share what I learned to save you time, and your employees some heartache, as you make your way through your own unique change journey.

Does this message apply to you?

All employees are leaders who have the power, through action or inaction, to influence those around them. 

So you are a change leader

And the more influence you have in the organization, the more responsibility you own regarding the success of the change, the organization and your team.

Lesson 1: Manage yourself first

When change happens, employees are hungry for information. What you say and how you say it during these sensitive times is crucial to how your employees will immediately receive the information.

  • If you have the opportunity to be engaged in the change prior to other groups: Take the time to ask questions, understand timelines for notification, spend time coming to terms with the change yourself and then build a communication plan.
  • If you are being notified of change along with your employees or greater team: Listen and ask clarifying questions. Then, schedule time to continue the conversation with your direct reports (if applicable) within a day while giving yourself some quiet space to process the change and build additional talking points.

Before managing others, we need to manage ourselves first. So take this opportunity to get clear, release stress and get prepared.

That said, it will be critical to communicate something to your team quickly — particularly if the change is significant. Even a quick note to share that you are gathering information ahead of a formal gathering can go a long way.

When the change has impacted the roles of my employees, I made it a practice to contact those impacted as soon as possible with a target to meet with the entire group within 2-4 hours.

Lesson 2: Connect the dots

The number one reason employees resist change is due to a lack of awareness about the purpose and reason for the change (Prosci).

When change happens, the first thing we want to know is why. Getting clear on this why, for ourselves first, is necessary to develop a voice of conviction when communicating with the broader team.

Then, being able to connect the dots between company strategy, change rationale and their specific roles within the company is important to establishing trust and transparency.

In times of change, employees need a rock, a constant, something to remember or hold onto while they summit this change with you. If you are a people leader, that rock must be you. If you lead from the side, then this is a great opportunity to take on this role for the employees that may be floundering around you.

  • What is the company’s purpose and the purpose of the organization your team is within? This can be something so obvious that we stop thinking about it. Now is the time to take a step back and remind yourself of those critical goals you have as an organization. Who are your customers? How do you serve them? How does the world improve as a result of this work? What is the risk of not changing?
  • What is the change and why is it important? Get clear on what exactly is changing, what isn’t and what is yet to be determined. Identify how this change furthers the mission of the larger company and organization.
  • Why should your team care? How does your team deliver on the larger mission today? How will they tomorrow? Be specific and paint a picture of how crucial they are to that broader purpose. If the change is bound to cause some anxiety within the organization, encourage them to use their leadership voices to help smooth the change.

The American Psychological Association found that over half of employees that don’t feel valued in the workplace intend to look for a new job (APA).

The reality is that employees need to feel valued and understand how they fit into the larger picture. Let’s take the time to provide this for them.

Lesson 3: Build momentum with your team

After establishing communication and connecting the dots, you have an important next step to providing security, energy and opportunity to your team: providing an action plan.

Building momentum during this time is critical for a few reasons:

  1. It promotes inclusivity and productivity. Rather than having employees continue to ponder the changes and how they fit into the picture, give them something tangible to show them how they fit into that picture. Recent research found that engagement has 3.8x as much influence on employee stress as the beloved work location (Gallup).
  2. It gives employees a level of certainty in their work. Instead of hemming and hawing on what work they should be doing next based on this new change (particularly if the change involves their roles evolving), tell them what to focus on.
  3. It actively demonstrates the strength of your team. Not only do employees want to be part of a strong and engaged team — but your leadership team does too. Finding small wins to tackle and celebrate as a first order of business is a great way to build change momentum.

During this time, it’s important to avoid taking on asks from leadership all by yourself. Unless you are being asked to handle something truly confidential, this is an opportunity to bring folks on your team along for the ride.

I have personally fallen victim to the idea that I am “saving workload” from the team by “handling something myself” or by “taking on a fire drill alone.” The reality is that as long as I’m mindful of where they are in the change process and am providing adequate support, my team needs those experiences. I realized that to avoid delegation was to rob individuals of the development they so deserve.

As you work towards surfing the waves of change, identify a list of opportunities with your team that will provide benefits in the future state and begin to tackle them together.

Here are a few tactical ideas:

  • Hold a strategy session to identify what can start/stop/continue from the existing strategy
  • Have informational interviews with new partners
  • Determine what tools could support teams that are in flux and how your team can help
  • Build process documents for future owners of any key efforts that will no longer be within your group
  • Develop a risk analysis for items that are on deck for cancellation or postponement and present the findings to the appropriate leadership partners
  • Identify critical skills needed in the new era of the organization and have your employees create development plans

Lesson 4: Be a part of the change — not apart from it

According to a recent SHRM report, 40% of HR professionals indicated that employee resistance to change is one of the greatest barriers businesses face to achieving priorities.

As you build a momentum plan with your team, take a moment to consider the larger picture.

  • How can this change be an opportunity for you, or other leaders on your team, to take on an additional stretch project to support the larger organization?
  • Use change to create more change. Are there any inefficiencies or challenges that you’ve recognized with your own team or the larger organization? This is the perfect time to “bundle” changes together and quicken the pace of optimization.
  • Remember that change takes time. As indicated in the change model graph below, our teams and ourselves will go through hills and valleys as we move through the change. Resist getting discouraged and instead encourage your team to understand the process and where they are within it. Use this as a tool to empower, not criticize.
The Curve, plotting morale and competence over time

As someone who has seen change done well… and not so well… I was tremendously impressed by how Pivot Strategies manages people-centric change, which is what led to my seeking out the company as an employer. 

Most of us have heard how often change efforts can fail through statistics like this one from McKinsey & Company: 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support.

The reality is that organizations don’t change, people do. And incorporating strategic, people-centered strategies into an overall change effort is crucial to not bolstering those fail-focused stats and losing millions (or more) in productivity costs, failed implementations, business unit closures and more.

If your organization is in need of strategic change management or a change communications partner that can plug into your existing systems and execute plans that inspire, engage and activate, then see how Pivot can help.

Seeking even more lessons in change strategy? Learn how to engage during times of change in this video training by Pivot experts.

About the Author

Pivot Strategies

Pivot Strategies is an innovative communications agency with a relentless passion for the power of strategic employee communications and smart change management to transform your organization from the inside out.

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