How To Lead Your Team Through Change

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There’s no denying the past two years have seen major changes in everyone’s lives, leaving organisations and their leaders’ all wondering how can they can successfully lead through change.

As a member of a leadership team, it would be easy to be overcome by feelings of exhaustion due to the amount of change and the pressure of leading people through a once-in-a-century pandemic – an event unlike any we’ve seen in our generation and whose effects will likely be long term.

There are 3 essential considerations when you need to help team members feel supported and manage your employees through big changes and tough times. Here’s our change management advice for leaders to feel equipped to effectively navigate change.

Tips for leading people through change effectively

At Inkling, we believe there are four universal needs that must be fulfilled if we’re to flourish: having a growth mindset, making meaningful connections, feeling deeply connected to a purpose, and being fully engaged and present.

During a period of change or a crisis, this doesn’t change. In fact, according to Harry M Kraemer, clinical professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, it simply requires finessing.

“The requirements to be a leader have always remained pretty constant,” he says, “it’s leading yourself, leading others, communicating like crazy, listening carefully, demonstrating you care.” Rather than change your style, he suggests that change calls for “really turning up the volume”.

Both global research and our own findings at Inkling have shown how adapting communication styles can help managers achieve this, pivot or take a new direction and lead their team members through times of great change and uncertainty.

Cultivate trust in self and others

There’s a concept known as generalised trust, and it’s the belief that most people can be trusted. It’s also considered an important aspect of society, leading to better health and well-being, as well as social cohesion.

In May 2020, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, institutional trust peaked; by January 2021 it had taken a dive. The good news is that business became the only trusted institution among the four studied.

As a leader, you should look at these times as an opportunity. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that we don’t always have the answers, especially when it comes to change. But there are ways to deal with uncertainty that will allow you to believe in yourself and for others to follow that lead.

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, as a leader within an organisation, you need to build a culture of psychological safety. What is that exactly? Edmondson describes it as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and that there’s “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.

In a practical sense, it means having as many answers as possible to questions about changes and telling team members around you what you know in a timely and straightforward way.

The more difficult concept for most leaders to grasp is telling people what you don’t know. To some, it seems counter-intuitive to say you aren’t sure or don’t know what will happen, but that sort of honesty builds credibility.

Finally, when team members ask questions for which you don’t have answers, give them a timeframe for when you will have them. It might be that you’ll get together for another meeting – either in person or virtually – in three days or you’ll send them an email by close of business tomorrow to supply the answers. Then make sure you meet the expectations you’ve set.

It not only makes people in your organisation feel as though they’re being heard, but it also protects your reputation and builds the credibility of you and the rest of the management team. People will trust you if you give them every indication that you know what you’re doing.

Build courage, connection and engagement through authenticity, empathy and logic

According to Harvard Business School professor, Francis X Frei, trust is one of the most essential forms of capital a leader can have. And, she co-wrote in the Harvard Business Review, there are three core drivers of trust: “People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they feel that you care about them (empathy)”.

It’s a similar concept to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle model, where ‘why’ is the most important message a team leader can communicate to inspire others – their colleagues – into action. Basically, explaining the passion behind the ‘why’ influences the limbic brain, the part that processes feelings such as trust and loyalty. During periods of upheaval and change, there is nothing more important.

The next part of the circle is the ‘how’. When a management team explains their organisation’s strengths and values and how it differentiates them from the competition this also influences the limbic brain.

Master the art of the first two and the third part of the circle – the what, meaning what the organisation does – falls easily into place. The most successful leaders can clearly articulate why the company does what it does rather than simply focusing on what it does.

Further reading: What is authentic leadership and how do you practise it?

Build effective communication behaviours for courageous conversations

Of course, it’s easier to build connection and engagement when it’s all smooth sailing, but in times of change it is still possible to deliver authentic, empathetic messages to team members while also delivering facts.

When the world changed in the first quarter of 2020, Marriott’s president and CEO Arne Sorenson delivered a video message to his associates. It is an excellent example of how a leader can deliver a difficult message clearly and with empathy, by outlining the situation, acknowledging how he and everyone else in the travel industry are feeling, how the management team is dealing with the crisis at their level, and by explaining that changes at individual properties would be explained by each hotel’s management team.

While the model of professionalism, Sorenson also shows his vulnerability – voice shaking while he talks about the difficulties of telling associates their roles are being impacted in a way that’s completely out of their control.

As Kim Scott, a former CEO coach for tech companies such as Google and Twitter, explains in her Radical Candor method, we are often told, especially as we enter the workforce, to act professionally. For many years, this meant without the kind of emotion shown by Sorenson. But Scott’s method has two axes: to care personally and challenge directly.

The first is what she calls the ‘give a damn’ axis. It helps create an environment in a workplace that encourages real human relationships – where people feel as though those around them, especially their bosses, care about them as people. Get that right and it makes the second axis much easier to negotiate.

From an early age, suggests Scott, we’re told that if we can’t say something nice, we should say nothing at all. Challenging directly, however, means you must be willing to confront people. If people already know you care about them, they will be far more willing to take your criticisms – constructive, of course – on board.

Scott has developed an acronym to guide leaders practising radical candour: HHIPP. “Radical candour is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person – in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise – and it doesn’t personalise,” says Scott. That last P is important – it’s more ‘when you do X it affects the team in Y ways’, rather than saying ‘you’re disruptive’ or ‘you don’t get it’.

When it comes to radical candour, good leaders don’t just dish it out, they actively encourage their entire team to practice it.

Further reading: Why empathy is important in the workplace

How coaching can support your team through change

Many of these models of communication, all of which can be helpful in leading people in your organisation through periods of change in healthy, happy ways, go against what many have been taught to believe as managers. There are often outmoded notions of how people should act in a place of work – that personal relationships among colleagues are inherently bad, that a worker cannot ever criticise a boss (to their face) – which makes it much easier for someone to say “You should practice radical candour” or “Just be honest when Isabel asks if she’s doing a good job” than it is to actually implement those communication changes and deliver them in an optimistic way.

Further reading: Why coaching in the workplace is so important

How to get started?

Inkling’s leadership development programs with embedded coaching can help. Creating a culture of positive leadership, particularly when there is ongoing change, requires resilience, optimism, hope and self-belief.

At Inkling, our coaches and facilitators work with organisations to help unlock growth potential that’s transformative, inspiring and centred on people. When you focus on these values during periods of change, you can turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one, creating sustained mindset and behavioural changes that benefit your company well into the future.

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