Leading through change: a 5-step framework

Written by: Alison Robins & Erika Khanna | Edited by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Mathieu Labrecque
Updated on: Published on: March 26, 2021 |  Reading time: 8m

Have you or your team ever felt overwhelmed by the changes taking place in your organization?

Maybe you navigated your team through an uncertainty like the shift to remote work? Led them through strategic pivots, structural changes or an acquisition?

Whatever the scenario, it seems that change is constant these days. And while these moments are not always easy, they are inevitable.

In many ways, leading people through change is a great opportunity to put your best leadership skills forward. On the other hand, change can make you (and your team) feel like you’re losing control.

We want to help you regain it. Follow our 5-step framework for leading through change to help your team adapt, build resilience, and be better prepared for the next time the wind changes direction.

What it means to lead through change

When you lead your team through organizational change, you act as the intermediary between the C suite where decisions are being made, and your team, who is affected by those decisions. You are the voice of the company in this instance.

It’s a delicate position to be in, and one that takes time and experience to master. Leading through change means mobilizing and motivating people toward a new direction.

It means ensuring they have all the information they need to understand the change, as well as the guidance they need to adapt to the challenge.

It sounds simple enough in theory, but as we’re sure you have experienced, people don’t always respond well to shifts in their routine.

Lead the change, don’t let it lead you.

Part of your role as a manager is anticipating this resistance and outlining how you plan to get buy-in.

This can be tough when you too feel the change was imposed on you. This is where a shift in mindset will come in handy! Lead the change, don’t let it lead you.

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A 5-step framework for leading through change

There’s no one-size-fits-all transition to change. Leading people through successful change means applying some basic steps to ensure you cover all your bases while helping your team lean in.

As we walk you through our 5-step framework, we also look into some scenarios for specific types of change you may encounter in your organization.

1. Be clear about the vision behind the change

Change is harder to accept when it’s not understood, which is why communicating the vision – the why – behind a certain change is essential.

That’s where you come in! Connect the change to the bigger picture and even the company values. Give full context to let your team process this change as part of the bigger picture.

Scenario: your company faced challenging times and restructured

After a restructuring where positions were abolished, your team may feel insecure. This could be about their own jobs or about paving a new course. This is where effective leadership is applied to empathetically provide more context.

“I understand how this can be difficult to process. I want to explain why this was done from a business perspective. The role of X was a temporary role to help us improve our skills in X area. After two years, the skills have been improved so we are no longer in need of this position. Applying these skills autonomously will allow us to move forward and improve other areas of the business so we can continue to thrive and remain competitive. This all aligns with our value of constant growth.”

2. Give your team the floor

Simply dictating change will not result in buy-in. While they are not “part” of the high-level decision, they do have an impact on how it all plays out. When people feel in control of decisions that affect their work, they demonstrate more accountability.

Currently, 32% of employees in our database do not feel appropriately involved in decisions that affect their work

Officevibe team engagement solution

Turn this into an opportunity for your team to share their questions, concerns and even feedback. See this as a chance to build a sense of community on the team by approaching change together with open discussions. Give your people the floor!

💡 Tip: For more difficult discussions, use Officevibe’s anonymous feedback tool to ensure employees express everything on their minds. Not knowing how your team really feels during these moments can be a dangerous blind spot.

3. Share an action plan with next steps

Naturally, your team may be looking around asking “now what?” To the best of your ability, tell them! Knowing what’s around the corner will ease nerves and stir motivation as the change rolls out. You don’t need to have all the answers, but clarity and visibility should be go-to items on your change management checklist.

Scenario: Your company is going digital-first

This is a big change that we are very excited to embark on with you! You must have a lot of questions, so I’d like to give you visibility on what I know is coming up next for us. Next week, the IT team will send a survey to understand everyone’s long-term tech needs at home. I will also book us a meeting to go through HR’s “remote work guidelines” together. It would be great if we can take this time to discuss how we can appropriate them to our team culture. As I am given more visibility on the next steps, you will be the first to know!

4. Account for resistance

No matter what your leadership style is, or how well you communicate change, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some resistance. Don’t let this fall through cracks! Not getting buy-in to change can result in disengagement, and when one employee jumps on that bandwagon, it can affect morale all around. Don’t discount how impressionable your team’s engagement is. In fact, in a recent study run by Gallup they noted how 70% of team engagement is influenced by their manager.

Now is the time to maximize your 1-on-1 meetings with resistant employees. Have tough conversations, dig deep to understand people’s resistance and try to uncover unease around the change. Often, resistance is due to just that: fear. According to Forbes,

Fear makes change intensely personal. People fear for their income. They worry about their families. They wonder what will happen to their careers. When people are afraid, they literally can’t hear or think as well.

Scenario: Your company is growing fast

It might be hard for long-time employees to embrace constant change when they are used to a certain way of working. They have their routines, their processes, their tight knit team. Change is going to shake this all up. They might question if the company is outgrowing them or if they are still a viable team member.

“Thanks for taking time for this 1-on-1 meeting. I know we spoke as a team about the upcoming growth of our team and company, but I want to know how you’re doing. You’ve been here since the beginning and I recognize that. What are your thoughts? I am here to listen.”

💡Tip: Our 1-on-1 meeting tool is crafted to help managers have more effective and meaningful conversations, especially when the going gets tough.

5. Make time for recognition

When a big change shakes the certainty of your team, it’s important to celebrate wins (big or small). This helps buffer the negative effects of the change. Even if goals are not yet being reached and your team entered a storming phase, highlight other accomplishments such as how the team has adjusted. Positivity and encouragement will help push people to keep going.

Get our Communication guide to structure your objectives and express them with clarity

The 4 steps guide to powerful communication

Tips to communicate change effectively

Plan your communication ahead of time

This is not a moment where you want to wing it. Taking the time to draft the essential elements you must communicate will be helpful in not only delivering the news, but answering questions.

To be clear, including the following in your message:

  • Who is implicated by the change and how will it affect them
  • What are the high-level details of the change
  • When will the change be implemented
  • Where does documentation exist on the change
  • Why is change is happening, and what is the vision behind it

Don’t share too much information at once

Be careful not to share too much information all at once. This can spark unnecessary overwhelm and might not allow your team to absorb critical elements of the message. Start with what is most important: the change and why it’s happening.

When it comes to communication about change, more is not always better. It is more helpful to focus on communicating the right information at the right time and ensuring it comes from the right level of the organization.

Gallup

As the change begins to move forward, you can then begin to share information on the more procedural elements. Work in increments while giving visibility as to what’s next along the way.

Create a safe space for honest discussion

When a change occurs, it is imperative to lead with empathy and psychological safety. Let your team know they can trust you with their questions and concerns. Remind them that it’s normal to have feelings or fears about the change, then give them the floor to speak. As people open up, you will be able to gauge how well the team is going to adapt or accept the change.

Let’s face it, tough conversations are…well, tough. But they don’t have to be impossible to get through. Officevibe’s anonymous feedback tool gives your team the freedom to tell you what they think and need, so you can learn about their concerns firsthand. That way, you get to the heart of what really matters, and can tackle those tough topics head-on.

Change moves us forward and helps us evolve. Without it, we’d be stagnant. When you accept that change is part of the natural evolution of your work, you’ll learn agility. As you navigate this throughout your leadership career, you’ll even develop the foresight to put contingency plans in place for you, your team and your company.

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