Supporting teams through change
Leading, managing and supporting teams through change can sometimes feel never-ending, thankless and a little out of our control. Imagine what it feels like to be a team member experiencing change, with even less agency for decision making, and far less visibility of what’s coming over the hill next!
Here we consider how best to manage and lead teams through change by focusing on the needs of the team and of the individuals within it, as well as landing the changes that the organisation wants to see.
There’s nothing earth shatteringly new here. Simply a reminder that when leading or supporting change, you need to focus on the humans first and be intentional in your behaviour. What follows will hopefully serve as a reminder of the basics that need to be covered once the pressure of change is on. Because when you’re in the midst of change, and experiencing your own stresses and tensions, it can get more challenging to remember some of the simpler stuff that you’d never miss in calmer times.
Gain clarity in communication
It’s always tricky to get communication right. During change, the stakes are higher and the challenge is greater. How much should you reveal? Should you protect the team by revealing information only on a ‘need to know’ basis? Or should you swing the other way and be completely transparent, sharing all the details that have been shared with you, even adding your own interpretations on top?
In truth, it makes most sense to adopt a sensible middle path. Be clear, be brief, and be kind in your communications.
- Clearly explain the reasons behind the change, the goals, and the anticipated benefits. Don’t over complicate or over explain, particularly when you’re not sure of the details yourself
- Remember empathy – think through the impact on team members and make this central to all of your communications
- Be ready to address any concerns and be prepared to answer questions, and remember that you don’t have to answer every question in the moment if you need the time to find the right answer.
Provide a future state vision
When facing the challenge of change, people need hope and they need something positive to focus on. Providing a clear picture of the future, along with any revised or refreshed set of objectives that the team is driving towards, provides clarity of focus at an uncertain time.
There does need to be some detail in your future state vision – how are you expecting the team will operate after the change is complete? How will the change link to the organisation’s strategy and direction? And how will the team’s contribution be felt more widely? Make your description of the team’s impact relevant, meaningful and significant and you will create a higher purpose for the team as they navigate through uncharted waters.
Make the team the change
We’ve covered providing some detail when communicating the future vision. But definitely not all of the detail. Here’s why. Human brains adapt best when they can create part of the solution. If you paint a broad and compelling picture of the future but you leave out some of the details, instead asking for the team’s active involvement in creating a collective road map to get there, you are keying into the natural ‘neuroplasticity’ of the human brain.
When you invoke neuroplasticity (the brain’s natural capacity to adapt and re-form), you enable new neural pathways to be created as team members have ‘aha’ breakthrough moments and they begin to create the changes you need at the neural level. This enables team members to learn more quickly and supports the behavioural changes you will need when leading a team towards a new operating model.
“Psychological safety is the bedrock of trust and collaboration.”
Allow for letting go of the past
Remember that for most people, change is experienced in the same part of the brain as physical pain. For some change-embracing team members, this will be less keenly felt, but for most people, change is pain. And experienced change inevitably requires people to ‘let go’ of established ways of doing things and allow space for the new.
Remembering to acknowledge what people will have to give up in order to move forward, and allowing space to discuss that individually and as a group, will go a long way to releasing any tensions that can come up during change. This will allow the team the space to talk about any fears, anxieties or perhaps disappointment, anger or resentment that they are feeling. Acknowledging (rather than ignoring) these feelings means that they can be released, rather than held on to for too long, and this avoids people denying or resisting changes which might lead to them emerging later in a more destructive form.
Lock down roles and responsibilities
When changes are required to ways of working, to the team’s structure, or team objectives or goals, you will enter a ‘stormy’ phase, where people may start to raise questions about their own and others team members’ roles and responsibilities. This typically happens because humans strive for balance, harmony and predictability in their lives and change can lead to uncertainty which they then take action to address.
These actions may see an increase in disagreements, challenges, questioning or arguing. Your role here is to provide clarity to all team members on their roles, their responsibilities and those of others. This will give people the certainty they are looking for and will create a greater sense of security for each team member that they remain relevant and that others won’t seek to take their place.
Create emotional safety in uncertainty
All sorts of emotions come up for people during change. Aim to create a psychologically and emotionally safe space for people to share whatever emotions they are experiencing. This can provide a sound basis for a ‘feedback loop’, where team members continue to feed into the redesign of the team by channelling any frustrations into recommendations for improvement. Simon Sinek says “psychological safety is the bedrock of trust and collaboration”, and without this, team members won’t volunteer ideas for fear of them being rejected.
How then, can you ensure that the team environment remains safe for everyone during change?
- Make mistakes ok. When people are learning and adopting new ways of working, mistakes are inevitable and they can be a useful feedback source too
- Make conflict and disagreement ok – validate and affirm people when they share whatever emotions they are feeling in the moment rather than closing emotions down, to make sure people feel heard and understood
- Encourage a diversity of views on whatever topics are being discussed. This should ensure that everyone feels that their view is valued, rather than this being seen as the sole preserve of the most vocal.
Adopt a growth mindset and stay humble
No one knows everything, nor should anyone be expected to know everything. It is not your job as a leader to be omnipotent and omniscient. It is absolutely ok for you to be human and to show vulnerability too. To share your own concerns or anxieties. To say when you don’t know the answer. And to acknowledge, own and share your own mistakes.
Not only will this role model the kinds of behaviours that will keep your team safe during change, it will also allow you personally the time and space you need to learn, grow and adapt. You shouldn’t expect to be able to land required organisational changes perfectly. There will be plenty of learning along the way as long as you remain open, ask questions, listen carefully to the answers and stay humble.
Celebrate ALL the wins
When change is needed, it’s often the case that the final delivery of a new system, operating model or restructure is seen as the primary measure of success. And it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that any celebration should be reserved until the change is ‘complete’, but that would run counter to human psychology. We all need positive reinforcement in order to habituate and embed new ways of working, behaving and thinking. When we receive public praise, we are likely to double down on our efforts to repeat the behaviour in order for it to be recognised and rewarded a second time.
So celebrate all the wins, big and small. Especially those that relate most closely to the changes you want to see. That way, you’ll be reshaping the team’s thinking around what good looks like from the outset and all the way through the change process.
Remember to be human first and you won’t go far wrong…
Change is unsettling for most of us. As leaders, it is our job to support our teams through uncertain times with clarity, humility and a shared sense of identity. Remember these eight steps and you won’t go far wrong. You never know, you might even enjoy the journey!