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Leading through Transitions

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There is hardly a leader today that is not thinking about how s/he will lead her or his organization over the next few months or years. We are all trying plan for how to navigate our way to a new post-COVID-19 “normal.” It’s unlikely that our re-emergence will be a like a big global ribbon cutting event, with swarms of people filtering out of their homes back to work. Instead, we will probably see a slow, tentative, and skittish trickle back. 

We believe the world is changed, at least for the foreseeable future. We don’t say it’s a permanent change, because if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as permanence. 

CEOs and other leaders face enormous organizational challenges as they attempt to define the path forward. Beyond the obvious changes within their companies, there are the changes in the economy, in their markets, and in their communities. There are deeper ripples, however — those within their staff. 

In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges distinguishes between change and transition:

Change is situational. Transition … is psychological. 

Effective leaders need to recognize that their teams are going through not only the obvious changes around them, but also deeply personal transitions. Working from home, for example, is an external change. But the feeling of connection or disconnection with colleagues, or even family at home, may lead to deeper emotional transitions.

Communicating in Transition

We have worked with several companies and organizations that have gone through major, enterprise-wide changes. These projects often represent significant workflow changes, and were very disruptive.

In these processes, we have identified several factors and communications strategies that can help ease the challenges that face organizations going through change.

Recognize the Endings

Leaders are often too focused on what they perceive as improvements to, and therefore gains for, the enterprise. They sometimes fail to recognize that many of their employees see the change as a loss. The change may help the company move forward, but it may still represent an ending — and end to a routine, to a physical place, or to comfortable workplace dynamics. 

Leaders need to consider this sense of loss, acknowledge it out loud in communications, and seek ways to create a ritual that gives space to employees to process it.

Seek the Influencers

Influencers within an organization are sometimes not in the C-suite. It could be a long-time employee that people admire and respect. It could be a front-line manager, or even an external person who is well-known within the company. 

While it is essential that senior leaders be highly visible and accessible through a transition, it’s equally important to recruit the support of these influencers. In working with them, leaders may learn about and be able to address important pain points. They may be able to mitigate risks of resistance among certain groups. By listening to the influencers, and providing them with communication toolkits or playbooks, they can often reach further and deeper into the organization than a strict top-down communication approach.

Define the Purpose

No one loves the feeling of instability that often accompanies change. If the change feels pointless, it can lead to apathy and resistance. Leaders must be clear about the purpose of the change, about the role that employees have in the success of achieving the purpose, and how the change will benefit their constituents.

In communication coaching and presentation training, we often refer to the WIIFM — What’s In It For Me. This suggests that people are self-interested to the exclusion of others. We believe that’s not always the case.

A change may not have a direct benefit to an employee. But through strategic communications, they may be able to recognize how customers  or clients can benefit, and how they play a role in that benefit. For example, in the case of hospitals who have implemented a new electronic medical record system — a massive change by any measure — employees were often more willing to tolerate the headaches associated with the change if they could understand how patient care would improve.

Celebrate the Incremental Victories

Major changes, and their related psychological transitions, can take a long time. Recognize smaller milestones along the way. Implement a system of awards and accolades to staff who make progress toward the change or help others do so.

One change communications project that we planned and implemented had a “Wizard of Oz” theme. We solicited submissions for employee recognition that were based on “brains, heart or courage.” Staff, nominated by their peers and publicly recognized by leaders, received small, symbolic awards for using problem-solving skills to overcome challenges; or for showing emotional support, a positive attitude and empathy; or for speaking up when there was an issue. 

Most leaders will face some of the biggest challenges of their tenure in the next few months, or even years. Their success will be measured not only by how well they “manage the change,” but also by how they “lead the transition.” Effective, strategic communication will be a critical pillar of their success.

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