How to guide your team through change
It isn’t enough for you to tell employees they need to change. You need to help them actually do it.
But how? Here are some ways you can actively guide your team through the next restructuring, merger, cost-cutting initiative, strategic shift or other major change your organization faces:
1. Repeat and reinforce key change messages — and tie them to concrete behaviors.
If you announce a company change and subsequently drop the issue, your team probably will, too. But if you weave key messages about the change into your regular communications and describe how they affect your team’s behaviors and actions in concrete, tangible terms, it will stay top-of-mind — and, over time, become part of people’s day-to-day work.
For example, let’s say your company’s leaders announce an initiative to become more customer-centric. You could:
- Add a recurring agenda item related to the initiative, such as a review of customer requests and feedback, to team meetings and/or 1-on-1s with your direct reports.
- Tie feedback (both reinforcing and redirecting) to direct reports’ behavior or mind-set toward customers — and, when you do, specifically mention the initiative.
- Explain how the initiative relates to both old and new tasks you delegate.
2. Walk the talk.
Teams are always watching their managers closely, but your behavior will likely be scrutinized even more during times of change, simply because people may be trying to figure out what the change really means and how to respond.
With this in mind, think about how your actions — not just your words — could be perceived. Why should your team prioritize using new customer tracking software if you keep scheduling meetings that conflict with the software trainings? Or why should your team believe the company is going to diversify its workforce if you only promote “mini-me’s”?
3. Help your team handle the additional stress.
Change brings uncertainty, and uncertainty often means anxiety. Managers who downplay change (i.e., treat large, disruptive changes as business as usual) or, on the other hand, overreact to it (i.e., pile on additional drama) can make things worse.
Instead, try to balance an attitude of calm confidence with heightened awareness of team members’ stress levels. Some specific actions you can take:
- Don’t play the victim card. Blaming and bad-mouthing “management” for changes might be a way to let yourself off the hook, but it can contribute to feelings of victimhood and disempowerment that only heighten your team’s stress.
- Give timely, frequent updates. People tend to crave information during periods of uncertainty; without it, they assume the worst. Overcommunicate by sharing what you know — and even what you don’t know — to reduce anxiety and keep the rumor mill in check.
- Be an active and empathetic listener and observer. Proactively seeking your team’s feedback and then hearing people out (for example in 1-on-1s) sends the message that you care and want to help. And remember that silence doesn’t necessarily mean everything’s OK — watch for nonverbal cues and initiate difficult conversations if you sense something’s off.
- Expect and forgive emotional outbursts. It’s normal for people to get emotional about changes, even long after they’re first announced (for example, anger that it’s taking a while to see results). Managers who get rattled by signs of emotion may inadvertently encourage their teams to hide what they’re really feeling.
For more tips, see our article Are your direct reports on the road to burnout? Some signs they may be and ways to prevent it.
4. Tailor or create an implementation plan — and get your team involved.
“Plans are immensely reassuring to most people, not just because they contain information but because they exist,” writes management expert William Bridges in Managing Transitions. He has a point. The absence of a plan implies that leaders have called for a change without thinking through the reality of implementation, which isn’t exactly comforting. You don’t want your team to feel that way.
For some changes — like office moves, mergers or a shift to a new technology — company leaders will advise you of an implementation plan, which you’ll tailor to your team’s perspective. In other situations — maybe a VP of Product sets a new directive to become more innovative — you may get the opportunity to devise your own plan.
Regardless of whether you’re tailoring or creating a plan, it’s a good idea to involve your team by soliciting ideas (e.g., “Here’s what’s changing — how can we apply this to our work?”) rather than locking yourself in your office, then unveiling your plan (e.g., “Here’s what’s changing, and here’s what we’re going to do”). When it comes to driving change, as McKinsey consultants Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller point out, “[W]hen we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome (almost by a factor of five to one).”
5. Reset and/or reprioritize expectations and performance goals at both the team and individual level.
One of the best ways to make change actionable is to revisit and revamp the expectations and goals you’ve set. This is something you can do explicitly and implicitly, independently and collaboratively, and for the whole team as well as each person on it — depending on your management style, the nature of the change you’re dealing with, the type of work your team does and other factors.
Let’s say leaders at your organization give managers a new directive to “do more with less.” Here are some steps you might take and examples of how you might apply that directive to expectations and goals:
- Map out new or revised team goals based on the change. For example, if you manage an engineering team, you could increase the number of features to a product next quarter to reflect the organization’s need for more output. And to make this increase possible, perhaps you’ll focus on features that are easier to implement or cancel a weekly team meeting so that people have more time to write code.
- Help direct reports align their individual performance goals with the new team goals. For example, to help your engineers be more efficient, in your 1-on-1s with them you could ask them about their work processes and brainstorm ways to streamline them. Or you might map their new responsibilities to a series of milestones, steps and deadlines. For more tips, see our article How to create an action plan.
- Consider direct reports’ development goals. You could also use 1-on-1 time to talk through how the new directive might impact your reports’ career goals. Will there still be budget for Sonja to attend that cool design conference? Can Ramesh continue to devote time to learning Rails? If not, what can you do instead to help them learn and grow? For more tips, see our article 11 ways to help your direct reports succeed in their careers.
- Identify behaviors to reinforce and redirect. When team members exemplify doing more with less — beating deadlines, finding ways to cut costs — you give reinforcing feedback and share their accomplishments with the rest of the team. Conversely, when someone does something that undermines the directive, you give redirecting feedback (usually better done in private). This approach sends a message that you expect behaviors central to the new initiative’s success.
- Integrate change messages into delegation. When delegating tasks, you ask team members to aim for the “quick and dirty” version, rather than the more in-depth version they’re accustomed to doing — and explain that this is a reflection of the organization’s new focus on efficiency.
- Identify and proactively preserve what shouldn’t change. For example, you remind the team of a key part of your team’s culture — collaborating instead of competing against one another — by saying, “We all need to make sure that the increased pressure on us doesn’t result in fighting over resources.”
6. Build opportunities for quick wins into the change process — and celebrate them.
Big changes usually take time, and you don’t want to lose your team’s buy-in. Your direct reports will need to see regular signs of progress — for example, higher customer survey results in the quarter following an initiative to improve service — if the change is going to remain urgent, or even just remain.
Why leave such change motivators to chance? Organizational change guru John Kotter recommends you take a more proactive approach: “Creating short-term wins is different from hoping for short-term wins … In a successful transformation, managers actively look for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish goals in the yearly planning system, achieve the objectives, and reward the people involved.”
What short-term wins could you steer your team toward to help them feel a sense of progress and momentum? And what kind of celebrations might your team enjoy most?
7. Remove any roadblocks that are making the change difficult for your team.
While you might not be able to identify and remove every roadblock, it’s your job to try — and to keep your team apprised of what happens so they know you’ve got their back.
What kind of roadblocks should you anticipate? They can be psychological, social or related to more concrete things like budget. Here are a few common examples:
- A competing commitment that’s keeping a team member from mentally making the change. For example, someone who loves technology might appear to be on board with learning a new software program — but he or she keeps blowing off the training sessions. This seems illogical, but what if the person’s sense of self-worth is wrapped up in being viewed as an expert on the legacy software your organization is moving away from? See this Harvard Business Review article for more on how to surface competing commitments.
- An appraisal or incentive program that rewards old behaviors over new ones. If a change runs counter to the reward system that determines your team’s compensation, you may need to better align incentives with the behaviors you want to see more of.
- A lack of power, access or budget. Some changes take more than sweat. Maybe your team needs help from someone with political clout to bust through layers of red tape, a bigger budget or critical product input from a tough-to-track-down VP.
- Operational problems that leaders need to know about. Your team may spot ground-level snags that leaders haven’t anticipated — for example, outdated technical tools that make collaboration with a new international team nearly impossible. Depending on the urgency and impact of the issue, you may need to communicate these roadblocks up the ranks, ideally with some suggestions for solving the problem.
- A toxic change-resister. Resistance to change is normal. But if a team member’s resistance persists or intensifies to the point where he or she chronically complains about it and poisons others’ view of it (or even tries to derail it), you’ll need to take action. See our related article A direct report is resisting the new way.
Not sure what kind of roadblocks your team might be facing — or even if there are any? Don’t assume all is well. In a calm, curious tone, ask, “Is there anything I’m not aware of that could be keeping you from making this change?”
8. Coach team members on skills related to the change.
Going in a new direction might require your team to learn or refine their skills. And helping someone build skills usually takes a lot more than signing the person up for a training course or mentioning he or she should set aside time to practice. Instead, it takes coaching.
Block out time to sit down with your direct reports, set learning goals together and explore ways to get there. You can then do things like pair them with potential mentors, give feedback on progress and delegate tasks that will allow them to try out new skills on the job.
9. Expect and even thank people for change-related mistakes.
Who thanks people for mistakes? Smart managers who understand the nature of change — that’s who. Change requires trying new things, and when people attempt something out of their comfort zone, they’re bound to make mistakes. If you fail to accept this reality with grace and good humor, and come down hard on people, why should they try it again?
This doesn’t mean you have to pretend bad work is good. It’s entirely possible to maintain a high bar for performance while remaining encouraging and upbeat. A smile, compassionate tone of voice and acknowledgment of the person’s effort can go a long way:
“Thanks for trying the new consultative approach we talked about in that call. I really appreciate your willingness to give it a shot. Can I give you some feedback for next time?”
10. Recognize team members who adapt and excel in the new environment.
Recognizing strong performers is a critical part of every manager’s job, but it takes on heightened significance when changes are under way. If your team sees that behaviors related to a change get recognized and rewarded, they’ll know that you’re not just giving the change lip service.
11. Address chronic resistance and regression head-on — without lumping all resistance together.
Dealing with direct reports’ resistance to a change takes a lot of finesse and good judgment, because resistance isn’t a cut-and-dried behavior. Plus, if you gloss over what people might be losing because of a change, you may never get to the true cause of their non-compliance.
When deciding how to handle resistance, ask yourself:
- Is the resistance just a phase in the person’s change process, or a deep, intractable mind-set?
- Is the person a concerned employee with valid complaints, or an unreasonable agitator?
- Is the person a highly engaged and/or high-performing employee? Interestingly, it’s common for those who have thrived in an old culture or environment to resist, feeling like they have the most to lose from a change.
- Is the resistance direct and overt (this is typically healthier) or covert (this may be an indicator that you haven’t created an optimal, open feedback culture on your team)?
If you do have a legitimate resistance problem (or aren’t sure), don’t sit around hoping it goes away. Take action to help resolve it. For more, see our article A direct report is resisting the new way.
12. Pace yourself by scheduling reminders to measure and communicate the value of the change over time.
Most company changes are a marathon, not a sprint; by mile 10 or 12, questions about the change’s efficacy could start to pop up, or your team’s behavior may slip back to the old way out of habit.
To guard against backsliding:
- Be clear about time frames — realistic optimism (“Changing our strategic focus is a smart move, but this kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight, so we need to pace ourselves”) usually beats out naive zealotry (“Buckle your seat belts — this is going to be awesome!”).
- Establish a system to remind your team of how far you’ve come. For example, you could schedule a bimonthly reminder in your calendar to assess how team members are doing and share progress reports.
13. Build the change into your team’s culture (and future).
To really make a change to endure over time, you’ll probably need to integrate it with your team’s culture. Culture is often an abstract thing, but there are two concrete steps you can take:
- Talk regularly about beneficial results of the change. This helps show team members the importance of sustaining change-related behaviors, and can lead to those behaviors becoming the new normal.
- Take the change into account in hiring, promoting and dismissing employees. What competencies does the change require? You can proactively factor in those things whenever you make a people-related decision that will affect your team’s and company’s future. For example, if the leaders at your organization want to globalize — you could specifically select for people who are adaptable, open-minded, culturally aware and/or experienced in international markets.
For more on building team culture, see experienced manager Michael Zippiroli’s article Why team culture matters and how I build it.