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4 Steps to Leading Change in the Face of Uncertainty

March 29, 2021

By Randy Hall


Change in any business is inevitable.  The pace of change over the past year or so though has been something quite out of the ordinary, and it’s not over.  Transitioning back into something that might resemble pre-pandemic work processes, yet with significant shifts in how we work that will likely hang for a while, or forever, is not going to be an easy task for leaders inside a business.

The changes that were made urgent by the pandemic happened quickly.  The whole world was focused on it, worried about it, and talking about it.  Everyone understood that changes needed to happen and why they needed to happen.  They moved in a new direction in their own best interest as well as what was right for the business and the team.

The shifts back to what our next normal looks like, will not happen that way.  Leaders will not have a worldwide urgency to move people back into the office or to get everyone together for a meeting, even if they believe it’s the right thing to do for the business.  There will be no consensus that changes need to be made, and many people won’t understand why change is needed right now or even agree on what changes are needed.  Many people will feel like a change is absolutely not in their best interest and in fact might put them at risk.  They might be worried not only about their health but about their quality of life, their work/life balance, and their family situation. Change this time will meet with varying degrees of resistance and leaders in every business will need to be ready for that and capable of dealing with it.

At the beginning of the pandemic, people were moving toward increased safety.  What are they moving toward as things shift back to something different now?

Leaders will need to take some critical steps to lead this kind of change, and the more that a business has effective leaders throughout their organization, the more quickly, smoothly and efficiently change will happen.

1. Discuss

Discussion creates insight and trust. Both are critical for any change effort.  Insight gets created as people think through and talk about what the change might look like, what they want most for their future work situation, and how they might make progress toward something different than they have today.  Leaders who ask questions of their team about what kind of transitions they think might work best for them, the team, and the business, also create trust because they demonstrate that the team’s best interest is important and will help shape the changes.

2. Involve

No leader will have all the right answers or come up with a perfect solution.  There may not even be a perfect solution.  Asking teams to explore possibilities, make suggestions, formulate tentative plans, and engage in the challenges associated with change will cause team members to think about the change at a deeper level, focus on it beyond their initial beliefs, and wrestle with competing priorities inherent in any change.  It also lets the leader focus on supporting the change rather than mandating the change.  Which one do you think is met with more resistance?

3. Practice

Use pilot programs or trial periods to test the changes out and get feedback.  Let people experience shifts and become advocates for the ones that might work best.  Leaders should absolutely set up guidelines such as, it must work well for the team, the individuals, and the business as people evaluate results.  But letting people engage with change attempts on a short-term basis will cause people to immerse in new behaviors, build new mental maps for how change might work, and ultimately make better choices about how to change effectively.

4. Support

The leader needs to be there every step of the way as change is happening to learn, reinforce, ask questions, and listen to feedback.   Leaders need to be available during the change in ways that let their team know that everyone is in this together, rather than seeing a leader making a decree and waiting for the team to get on board.  Or worse, ramping up the fear and consequences if they don’t. Leaders need to ask lots of questions, like “what’s working so far?” and “How can we balance the need to build a strong culture together with the individual needs on our team?”  What kind of transition time would make the most sense?”  This is a great place for leaders to also be transparent about their own challenges and their beliefs about what will help the business create its best future.

And finally, don’t forget the goal.  If the goal of the change is a fully engaged team doing superior work for our customers, our function, or our business, then how we lead change matters.  If the goal is everyone on the team agreeing with my beliefs about how things should look, we are going to make some very big mistakes, run into far more resistance than necessary, and make change take a lot longer than it needs to.  And we will likely lose trust and the support of the team in the process.  Good luck leading without those things.

Change is a fantastic opportunity to be at our best as a leader.  Embrace it, learn from it and become a change leader that can take any team through any transition quickly and effectively.  We need more of those in business today.

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