Leading Change Series, 1: Helping your team to express concerns and emotions during change

This is the first in a series of blogs aiming to support leaders and managers who are working in an environment of significant or ongoing business change.  Each article is a short and accessible ‘how to’ guide focusing on one topic.  They explore: why that topic is important and the risks of not addressing it; examples of what successful leaders have done to address that topic; the impact of those actions and the key learnings to take forward.

When any change is happening, it is going to be a hot topic for discussion in the canteen and at the coffee machine.  These ‘water-cooler’ conversations can be important. They shape the stories that get told about the change, who tells them and from which perspective.  They inform how questions get surfaced and answered. Finally, they become the facts and myths that circulate about the change.  

There will be rumours, there will be unknowns and people will need time and space to explore and process the information differently.

Ultimately, these informal channels will be where people will express their emotions and feelings and seek out information about the change if there is no other forum provided within which to do so.   

I’ve seen these informal processes of expressing concerns and emotions ignored.  Leaders tend to know about the grapevine and who influences it, but they often stick to more formal lines of communication.  Change messages are cascaded from the top about why the change is necessary and gossip is played down, ignored, or people are ‘corrected’ if they are overheard.   This can be a bit stifling and a missed opportunity to help people to think creatively, to start to internalise the change and to connect emotionally with the change early in the process.  

This article doesn’t explore change theories in detail.  But we know that people process change differently and that change is an emotional and unsettling process where our norms and ways of thinking and being are challenged.  

So why do we ignore or seek to minimise opportunities for people to express emotions and concerns during change as soon as we are operating within an organisational context?

Asking questions, thinking out loud, admitting fears and hearing what other people are worried about can help people to make sense of the change and to start to transition through it.  William Bridges has done some great work on transitions. He describes change as the external event that is taking place, for example the new strategy or structure.  The transition is the inner psychological process that people go through. His 3 phase model includes endings, a neutral zone and new beginnings.   

Organisations are often wholly focussed on the external change because they are invested in the outcome the change will deliver.  This can leave staff with little support to manage their own internal transitions.

Leaders may be unsure of what is missing and why their teams are finding it hard to move forward.

I’ve worked on change programmes where leaders have consciously helped their teams to express emotions and concerns.  This has started the transition journey.  Leaders have created a safe (non-judgemental) and open space for people to regularly talk about the change, how they are feeling, their concerns and what they are doing to manage the change for themselves. They have asked open questions like:

1.    How do you personally feel about the change?

2.    What have you learnt from other changes you’ve been involved with in the past?

3.    What can we do right now to support each other as a team?

Encouraging people to talk about what worries them may seem counter-intuitive but not talking about concerns doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  When discussions are led effectively there is a balanced focus on both concerns and new opportunities in the right moments.  This can create an environment of honesty, trust and support within the team.

Five examples of actions leaders have taken are:

1.    Setting time aside at the beginning of team meetings to openly acknowledge how people are feeling about the change and how the team can support each other.  Make sure that individuals know that leaders are available to listen with an open ‘door’.

2.    Channelling questions the team has asked into a formal communications processes so that individuals know that leaders are listening, seeking responses and sharing experiences.

3.    Generating opportunities for teams to engage with the change and to ask questions, pilot and feedback on proposals.  This is a fantastic way of helping teams to make sense of what they are thinking and feeling about the change.

4.    Going to extra lengths to celebrate individual and team achievements during times of change, and linking these to future organisational goals.

5.    Increasing time spent coaching and developing the team with a focus on helping individuals to understand what’s within their sphere of control and influence.  Support individuals to plan and complete actions that position them for the future.

I’ve seen these initiatives help teams to transition much more quickly than their colleagues and to start to think earlier about the possibilities change may bring.  

This has included staff deciding to leave and pursue other career interests; individuals becoming change champions and supporting others through the change; greater contributions to the change process leading to more sustainable solutions because the right mix of individuals were involved.

My 3 key learnings I’d like to share are:

1.    Give people permission to talk about the change on a personal level.  Don’t pretend it is business as usual and that everyone should simply get on with it.

2.    Your role as a leader here is not to have all the answers, but to be a really great listener and facilitator and to let people talk about what’s important to them.

3.    Don’t make assumptions about anything, but least of all about how your team is feeling about the change and what’s important to them.  Ask questions, lots of questions, with the clear intention of improving your understanding.  

If you are feeling apprehensive about what might be said in open forums or what kind of emotions might be expressed, think about how you can draw on the support and experience of your network to help you to prepare for and feel confident in facilitating discussion and responding to emotions.

Team coaching can also be effective to help to identify what changes are needed and how to embed those changes.  During periods of transformational change working with an external coach can often ensure the right balance of support and challenge.

I hope you found this first article in the series helpful. I’d love to hear about your change leadership experiences and challenges.  Please get in touch if there is a topic you would like to see covered. Finally, 

What one action will you take as a result of reading this article? 

Please let me know in the comments section.