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Times-a-changing: 4 practical ways to help your team cope during organizational change

Even when it’s for the better, change is hard.

Although it’s a regular part of pretty much all aspects of life, for most of us (and our teams), change still feels threatening and scary. This probably explains why we have seriously negative feelings about organizational changes at work, even when said changes could mean opportunities to grow or, at the very least, to build resilience.

Fortunately, we have some tips to help make the process as painless as possible. Read on for more.

Check in with yourself, first.

When change comes knocking at your office door, calm consideration is key. So when your boss hands down a memo about new policies, moving to a new location, a dreaded reduction in force or whatever the-you-know-what-hitting-the-fan is, don’t make the mistake of sounding the alarm too quickly.

Welcome to yet another of life’s think-before-you-speak moments. While you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) put off communicating the change too long, you should definitely give yourself some time to explore your true feelings before you break the news to your staff. This is especially true for supervisors who didn’t participate in or weren’t aware of this decision until after it was made and probably need to check in with their own feelings first.

So take a day or at least a couple of hours to process. You need time to let everything sink in and to analyse the implications of the situation. Picture exactly how this change will impact the company, your team and individual team members in the coming months and years. You’ll get a better perspective on the "why" of what’s happening. 

It’ll also help you explain the change to the people you manage in a more natural, conversational way that doesn’t involve stiffly reading off a memo from the C-suite. Delivery makes a real difference in how people feel about the message, even when you’re communicating bad news.

Dealing with change is stop and go but delivery makes a difference, even with bad news.

@kaip via Unsplash

Communicate clearly with your team

Talk to your team early and often for best results. Careful, well-thought-out communication is especially important during times of change. Research published in the International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion suggests stress is made worse when changes are ambiguous, uncertain and not communicated well with employees. So share as much as you’re permitted to as soon as you get the go-ahead from higher-ups.

Be honest about how the change is going to affect the company, the work to be done and employees day-to-day.

And don’t forget to communicate the desired outcomes as well as the tasks to be completed—your team will probably have good ideas about how best to achieve those outcomes. Even if they don’t, it’s essential that everyone understands the "why" for changes to be successfully implemented (Harvard Business Review).

It’s also important to be respectful of the past way of working in your explanations. Dragging down how things "have always been done" could make employees feel like the work they’ve done in the past is being devalued and make them resistant and slower to adapt.

Roll with the (over)reactions

Remember, in the beginning, when we talked about how important it is to give yourself time to have your reaction to the news. Your team needs time to adjust, too.

Some of your employees may lose the plot for a few hours or days. This is to be expected. Per Stanford University’s Faculty Staff Help Center, low morale, stress, decreased productivity and an overactive rumor mill are typical in workplaces going through organizational change. Don’t be surprised at overreactions.

Instead, acknowledge losses openly and sympathetically and compensate for them when you can (Stanford University).

Avoid misunderstandings and keep up healthy working relationships, by keeping the lines of communication open and acknowledge and accept your teams’ emotional reactions to what’s happening. To make sure your team members feel listened to, Forbes recommends the use of empathic and active listening techniques.

Give the other person your full attention. When it’s your turn to reply, start by saying something like "If I understand you correctly…" or if the person in question seems upset try something like, "You sound really frustrated, can you tell me what’s going on?" And whatever you do, don’t take employees’ reactions personally, even if it’s clear everyone wants the messenger (you) killed.

Your team members may have negative or unpleasant feedback for you, and it’s best to listen, because even if you’re sure what they’re saying isn’t 100% true, there may be some useful critiques mixed in with the exaggerations that could help you do better in the future. But if comments get too out of hand when people are riled up, set down clear limits and move on.

Be the change you want to see

Leaders lead. Modeling the behaviour you want to see is an obvious way to show staff that you (and the company) are invested in the change.

As in all other areas of life, saying you want to change isn’t enough— deliberate action is required.

When leaders don’t spend time and energy working on the change communicated, employees will think the change isn’t important and act accordingly (Tushman and Nadler, Beyond the Charismatic Leader: Leadership and Organizational Change).

So while it’s a good idea to be honest with your team when you break the news that this is hard for you too, you want to move on to the pros (and away from the cons) as soon as possible. If your staff see you working hard to implement the change without complaining at the water cooler, it’ll leave an impression.

Writers talk about show, don’t tell, because showing is that powerful even though in this particular case we’d recommend showing AND telling.

A big part of good leadership is leading by example. Employees look to their managers for guidance, especially when the going gets tough. So roll up your sleeves and show ‘em what it takes to keep moving forward.

Communicate some more

Yes, this is the second time we're mentioning this. But it’s so important it needs a double entry. Because communication can’t stop when you break the news.

A crucial part of successful (and lower-stress) change management is maintaining an ongoing, honest conversation with your staff.

In fact, to keep your team as happy as possible, Entrepreneur recommends keeping people abreast of updates, giving them opportunities to share their concerns, comments and suggestions at the beginning, middle and throughout the process.

Keeping people informed makes them feel involved. And the more engaged your team feels, the quicker they’ll get on board.

As your team takes the time they need to process the change at hand, be sure to keep your office door open. Make sure they know you’re ready and willing to listen to their thoughts and feelings about what’s happening, especially while they’re ramping up.

Sometimes a team member who didn’t have much of a reaction at first will experience doubts and anxiety about the change after it’s happening. That’s yet another reason why it’s so important to continue communicating openly with your team throughout the change—to keep valued employees from falling through the cracks because not everyone reacts on the same schedule.

Change isn’t easy—but you can make it easier for your team.

What are some ways you've helped your team cope with organizational change? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com​.