We all deal with change in the workplace from time to time and while textbook change management tactics can help show us the external actions we must take to guide organizational change, there are internal demands we cannot delegate away.
Despite the amount of literature on change, we are often surprised when it happens and overwhelmed, at least temporarily, by the intellectual and emotional demands it places on us. We may think we are prepared, but eventually we discover there are variables we did not anticipate.
Leaders frequently fail to consider the emotional demands for change. Layoffs, mergers, downsizing, re-engineering, work redesign and changes to the business model all carry an emotional component. Leaders need to understand that emotions are part of organizational reality and therefore part of leadership.
The behavioural requirements of change for leaders are often underestimated. High control leaders easily unravel team development and collaboration initiatives by demanding change projects proceed on schedule even when they sabotage the initiatives by behaving in old ways. Leaders who are overly concerned with kingdom building and the next promotion make change projects difficult by insisting every obstacle is potentially bad for them, instead of focusing on the task and moving forward.
The dual journey: You are the organization
Organizations cannot progress beyond the capabilities or complexity of their leaders. Yet change can confront leaders with demands for behavioural shifts that cannot be delegated away.
The dual journey means strategic change needs to be linked with a corresponding commitment to personal change in the leaders up and down the hierarchy, beginning with those at the top. When we see our own learning as integral to the change effort, we become the learning experts needed to guide others through tough transitions.
Change is not a rational process only; sometimes it is irrational and surprisingly emotional. When old behaviours and old strategies no longer work, the impact can be unsettling. If we open ourselves to learning, our organization and we can prosper.
Inner and outer worlds of change
Change always comes in two. There is the outer change, which we are paid to manage and the inner emotional world of change we would like to ignore. Both require our attention and skill. The outer world is the external interface: metrics, measurements, forecasts, performance objectives, schedules, timetables and accountabilities. This is where our leadership focus typically goes.
The inner world contains our assumptions, judgements, feelings, fears and hopes. The critical stamina, endurance and resilience we need to fuel our change efforts are embedded in the inner world and often go unrecognized and therefore untapped.
Leaders have to build their capacity to work with emotions, beginning with their own. Here are some quick tips to remember:
- Fear often shows up disguised as anger or frustration
- Grief often follows perceived loss. It can look like anxiety, hyperactivity, loss of focus, melancholy, indifference or anger
- The higher in the organization, the greater the optimism; the lower, the more hopelessness there is
- You don’t have to act emotional to express emotions
- When someone expresses an emotion that is not ‘approved’, for example anger, impatience or frustration, just listen. Good listening takes learning and practice to become competent
- Emotions help calibrate how important something is to us. Knowing this can help leaders to motivate and inspire others to great things
Wading into the internal emotional waters can seem upsetting. The fear is we will cause the very disruption we are attempting to improve. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, doing or saying nothing when your team is upset can lead to these unacknowledged emotions building and spilling out in inappropriate ways.