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Managing The Emotional Aspects Of Organizational Change

What CEOs can do to move their teams to better performance, even during unpleasant changes like layoffs, restructuring and increased competition.

When my family and I moved to the U.S. from Sweden, I drew the culture-shock curve for my daughters on the flight over. I explained that we’d probably experience a honeymoon phase—and then a big dip. Since then, we’ve been warmly welcomed in our new home, but when challenges do arise, we go back to that curve and realize, “Hey, this is normal!”

When things are difficult, it’s comforting to look at a model and know many others have experienced the same thing, and there’s a pattern to get to the other side. Professionally, disruptive change is happening with increasing frequency, and managing through it has become an essential skill for every leader.

Like the stages of managing grief, there is an emotional passage to achieving change. Getting your team from the status quo to a new place is a journey.

We’ve developed a model for managing the emotional aspects of change, focused on what leaders can do to move their teams to better performance—even during unpleasant changes like layoffs, restructuring and increased competition.

Zone 1: Prepare for Change

In the Zone of Status Quo, business is carrying on as normal. The big change has not occurred, or at least you’re not aware of it.

• Enjoy a season of balance. When you’re experiencing a calm reprieve, keep normal office hours. Address important but not necessarily urgent initiatives like planning, strategizing and coaching, tasks that often go out the window once the craziness begins.

• Gather strength. This zone is like preparing for a tough winter in Sweden. Savor the summer sunshine, but remember that it won’t last forever. Is the barn properly covered, are the fences strong, do we have food stored up? It’s time to learn, gain strength and make sure your processes work, so you have a well-functioning machine when the chaos starts.

Zone 2: Manage the Disruption

Now the change hits. As a leader, your goal is to get your team as fast as possible to the Zone of Adoption, where your team thinks, “Okay, I’m in. Let’s go.” In the meantime, things are about to get messy.

• Be upfront about what you can (and can’t) tell your team. Share with your team as much information as possible and clarify what you can’t share. People will fill gaps of information with their own ideas and opinions, so get ahead of it.

• Recruit champions. Early in my career, I led a big change project that was fairly unpopular. I realized that everyone looked to one team member in particular, and because he resisted the change, the negativity multiplied throughout the team. I thought, “If I get him to love this idea, I can win the whole team over.” So I put my energy into recruiting him to the initiative, which took listening, talking, spending time and sharing information. Eventually he did change his mind and the moment he did, everyone else changed, too.

Zone 3: Adapt Quickly

Once your team is onboard, now it’s time to learn to do things differently, which most likely means changing habits. And we all know how difficult that is.

• Celebrate small wins. In a big change initiative, we focus on the end goal. But as a leader, you need to very intentionally celebrate the hills you climb along the way, otherwise it’s just a slog up a mountain. Let everyone see how far you’ve come.

• Don’t neglect day-to-day business. When you talk about change in theory, many tend to forget that business needs to go on as normal. Your organization isn’t closing down because you have to make people redundant or implement a new technology. Discuss with your team what will happen if day-to-day operations falter, and help them feel ownership in keeping things running.

Zone 4: Seek Feedback and Celebrate Success

A colleague of mine used to say, “Have you noticed that you get a T-shirt whenever you start a new initiative, but you never get one when you complete it?” The most common mistake in Zone 4 is simply not acknowledging victory, which is a missed opportunity.

• Acknowledge success. If you finish the change and never talk about it again, people will just remember the craziness and not the improved results. Don’t skip this zone even after unpleasant change. After layoffs or restructuring, we tend to say, “Let’s never talk about that again.” But stop and point out that even after a difficulty, you’ve made it through. Change is constant, so the next time it hits, you want your team to remember they’re strong enough to handle it.

• Review the change model and capture insights. To help your team better handle change in general, debrief the four zones: “Do you all remember when we were in the zone of Disruption and how it felt? And in the zone of Adoption, we tried all these processes? What can we learn for the next change initiative that comes our way?”

Every change initiative is instituted to get better business results—and leaders must manage the emotional aspect of change in order to achieve them. If you don’t, you risk getting stuck in the Zone of Disruption—and every moment there costs you time, money and energy.

As a leader, you goal is to move your team to the Zone of Better Performance as quickly as possible. Don’t keep this model your own little secret. Share it with the team, and when difficulties arise, you’ll all know what to do.


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