Everyone who’s navigated workplace transitions—in other words, all of us—knows it’s a whole lot easier to adjust to a new way of thinking or doing when we feel supported emotionally by company leaders. Whether the organizational change is implementing a new payroll system, bringing in a new GM, or finalizing a merger, great leaders communicate clearly and thoughtfully so employees understand, accept, and, ultimately, embrace a company’s evolution.
At People Spark Consulting, we use the Kubler-Ross Change Model to demonstrate how the seven stages of grief—shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiment, decision, and integration—closely align with the phases of change-acceptance at work. With this framework in mind, we encourage leaders to read verbal and non-verbal cues to gauge how people—including fellow leaders—are faring in the face of change. When leaders are able to assess where someone is on the change-acceptance curve, they can listen and respond in ways that make others feel seen and heard. That’s a shortcut to getting people on board with workplace transitions of any kind.
Here are four strategies, all informed by Kubler-Ross, that can help leaders guide individuals or teams through the emotional journey of organizational change.
1. Notice your own process of adjusting to change.
Kubler-Ross’ Change Model applies to leaders just as much as employees. After all, leaders are people, too! Even if you’re the person initiating or supporting a change, or the one tasked with communicating about a new business process or goal, you still have your own emotional process to go through. Pro tip: Take some time to acknowledge the emotional impact of the upcoming transition. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re questioning the value of the change; it’s simply a reminder that leaders need an adjustment period, just like everyone else.
2. Tune in to where your employees are.
The Change Model reminds us that getting used to new situations or approaches happens in predictable phases and stages. At the first stage of this model, employees feel surprised or concerned about a change. By the last stage, they’ve integrated the new way of doing things into their work. When you understand there’s an expected pattern or cadence to processing a transition, leaders can anticipate employees’ questions or concerns and communicate accordingly. Pro tip: Listen to learn. Be aware of phrases like, “Are you kidding me?” and “This will never work” (the early shock/denial/frustration phases) or “I’ll give it a shot” and “We can make this work” (the final experiment/decision/integration phases).
3. Give feedback based on where others are at.
Meaningful feedback requires listening, pinpointing a specific behavior, either positive or negative, and clearly laying out expectations for the future. (You can read about our favorite BIT framework for giving feedback here.) When an organization is in flux, feedback sessions provide opportunities for coaching employees along the Change Model so they reach the integration stage sooner. Use one-on-one conversations to voice observations or concerns based on where employees are along the curve. Expect to listen and respond to concerns from people at the early stage, while recognizing and cheering for those who are further along. Pro tip: One thing all leaders should pay attention to is changes in behavior. For example, if someone has complained openly about a change and then stops sharing altogether, it may indicate feelings of defeat or depression.
4. Leverage people who are further along in the change process.
Identify employees who have fully embraced organizational change or who are moving through the experiment/decision/integration phases of the change. These folks could encourage (and expedite) company-wide adoption by sharing how they overcame resistance to new business practices or systems. Pro tip: If you hear someone say they found a solution to a problem, first encourage that behavior by acknowledging their initiative and drive. Then, ask if they’d be willing to share their experience with others on the team.
As we said at the outset, change in business is inevitable. No matter the scale of change, when leaders can quickly get employees on board with new systems, processes, or people, everyone benefits. That’s why it’s a smart move to make sure your top team is ready, willing, and able to communicate effectively throughout the emotional journey of workplace transitions.
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