December 02, 2021

How to Effectively Lead Your People Through Change

8-minute read

As originally published in the Credit Research Foundation’s publication, Perspective by CRF (Q3 2021)

I’ve worked in finance departments for 30 years—25 of those leading credit and accounts receivable teams and have been involved in all kinds of change, from ERP replacement programs, acquisitions of all sizes (and shapes!) and introducing new working practices to changing the structure of the department and team member responsibilities.

Some have been a major success and others have failed. Some have been a pleasure to work on and others have been a living nightmare.

All have been significant learning experiences. I want to share some thoughts from those experiences and hopefully provide some nuggets of insight that may benefit you as you lead your people through change.

As it has been said many times by many people, the only constant is change. Businesses and departments will be in a regular motion of change in the coming months and years, so it is vital we make change management a skill we develop as a business leader.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

In his bestselling book, The One Minute Manager, Kenneth Blanchard talks about how we need to manage people differently, according to how they need to be managed rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, using the phrase Different Strokes for Different Folks to describe this. People are motivated in different ways, and as leaders, we need to tap into what makes our people perform at their best. For some, this is personal fulfillment. For others, it’s being part of a successful team or project.

Change is also different for everyone. Some will embrace the opportunity and see the goal that is being set as a challenge to overcome. Others will feel fear that their world is being changed and wonder if they can adjust or adapt to the change. Some will not understand why the status quo of their current world is being challenged and have the mindset of, “the way it’s always been done is working for me, so why is change needed?”

This is why change is so difficult. Some are easy to inspire, but others need you to work with them to overcome the resistance of change first—which usually stems from a fear of how the change will impact them.

Leading change is a key skill and involving your team as you drive change is critical to your success as a leader.

What You Say Is Not Always What They Hear

From my experience, one of the most common mistakes in a change program of any kind, regardless of size, is communication. The leader of the change can present at a kick-off session, provide all the reasons for the change and the plan to achieve success—but how much of that information is really heard? And how much has been heard and understood as it was intended?

We know that we can only absorb so much information at one time. I would suggest that when change is first introduced, the information you offer is significantly reduced to what can be processed by most of your team. As soon as you begin talking about change, your people will immediately begin wondering, ‘how will this impact me?’ This limits what can be absorbed, so be very aware of how much information you offer when the change is introduced.

I suggest that the kick-off session be as short as possible and repeat the key elements at the end. Anticipate the greatest shared fears and address them, but also be sure to leave time for questions. We can’t know the individual experience of each of our people, especially those who have been in similar situations that turned out to be negative.

Communicating why a change is taking place is equally essential. This can be a simple task if the change is either obvious or beneficial. In other instances, we need to clearly and concisely communicate why the change taking place is worth the perceived pain.

Check in with your people shortly after the initial meeting to seek their feedback, their fears and their viewpoint. This is not the same as asking for their permission or agreement. It’s checking in to ensure they understand what is about to take place, the benefits of the change and how it will impact them.

If your people have any doubts, they will typically fear the worst. In this scenario, no one can perform at their best, and instead you have team members who are skeptical of and resistant to what’s about to take place.

Why Are You Getting So Upset?

Have you ever wondered why people get so upset about change? While significant change in our lives is sometimes understandable, I have seen team members get bent out of shape because we are asking them to perform the same role but change the customer accounts they look after.

Here’s why leading and managing change can be so challenging.

We get so used to doing what we do the way we do it, we can almost do our jobs on auto pilot. In his book, Change Inspiration, Dr. Damian Hughes explains that behavior is 95% habitual. This means we are in control, but that we often don’t have to put much thought into what needs to be done to complete the task. We become experts in what we do, and for many, a great deal of satisfaction (and comfort!) is obtained.

So, when we introduce change, we’re taking our people away from their comfort zone, their expertise and their job satisfaction, and moving them into a conscious state of unknown. This brings up questions like:

  • Will I be able to perform my role as well, using a new solution?
  • Will I be able to build relationships with a new team?
  • Will the customers be as good (and nice!) as the ones I speak with and are responsible for today?

From the position of being in control, we move our people into change and their logic often goes out the window for a short time. This is perfectly normal as they come to terms with their fears and emotions.

At this point in the change management process, it’s critical to effectively communicate and create a space for your people to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. Their perception is their reality. You may need to fact-check this and help them understand how this change will actually impact them, and how it will also benefit them. Make sure they have all the answers—and the time—they need to build up confidence and continue to perform at optimum levels.

Prevention Is Better Than a Cure

You may be thinking that you don’t have the necessary time to provide this level of communication. From my experience, this is the most important part of the project. It ensures buy-in from as many people as possible, so the change happens as quickly and smoothly as possible. If we can resolve any doubts and fears regarding the change, either from a personal perspective or how the change project is progressing, I would suggest the pace of change will not only gather pace but has more chance of being successful.

Think about it this way: when something goes wrong, everyone involved finds the time to put out the fire. This means that we can all find time to prevent the fire from happening in the first place.

This is the mindset required to effectively lead your people through change.

Encouragement Before Recognition

Change is emotional for people in many ways. For example, when starting a new job or learning a new skill, you start off with lots of drive and positive expectation. However, at some point—usually close to the start of the project—we come to realize this is going to be more challenging than we first imagined.

The typical reaction is to return to the comfort of our old ways, but instead, we need to move the focus back to why we are making the change.

Two key things are needed here. The leader needs to recognize this and remind people of the vision and purpose—why we are doing this. We need to inspire people, not with a presentation, but by creating small groups or one-on-one discussions. Describe what it will be like when the project has been completed, and how they will feel to be part of the success.

We also need to provide encouragement and highlight the skills each person on the team brings to the project. At a time when people are feeling doubt and fear, and are unsure if they can achieve the goal, it is important to provide encouragement and instill confidence that this project can be completed successfully.

“No one has done a better job from being criticized,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet I have found that too many times, leaders wait until the end of the project, when success has been achieved, to praise their team. Recognition is vital for the team and individuals at every stage of a change management initiative, and especially at the beginning and in the early stages.

Find ways to praise your team members individually, all along the journey, not just when the destination has been reached. See this as added fuel to get to the destination.

Don’t Dismiss Doubt or Criticism as Negative

We have already mentioned that people are different, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons from leading people who approach life from a negative lens.

For example, when we introduced an AR Automation solution at one of my previous companies, two colleagues were asked to take part in the User Acceptance Testing (UAT), and they let me know they were going to try to break the solution. My initial response was one of surprise, simply because they were supportive of other initiatives I had introduced. However, they had been involved in a similar project before my arrival that delivered far less than what was promised.

After much thought, I gave them my blessing to try to break the system. Why? Their intent was positive. They were not resisting the change. They wanted the change that was promised but didn’t want to implement another solution that would not deliver the expected outcomes. They didn’t want to fail, and they also didn’t want me to fail.

I tend to see an idea and think how it can be done and how great it will be, and as a result, I have sometimes overlooked critical aspects that deserve consideration. By including others on the team—the ones who need to have all the bases covered and have a different perspective—we have achieved success. So, my advice is not to dismiss the negative comments but check them out and try to understand the position they are coming from. It could be that the person has the same drive and enthusiasm, but they want to cover all the possible failure points to ensure success is achieved. That’s why teams are made up of different skills and characters—use them!

In case you’re wondering, the two aforementioned colleagues didn’t break the solution. And because of letting them try they understood how the solution worked inside and out. They became the biggest advocates of the solution and loved to tell others in the business and industry peers how it became a catalyst to achieving un-paralleled success—and was a catalyst for improving AR results.

Don’t Forget the Pit Stops

Ever been on a long journey? Do you try to drive straight through, or plan breaks out of necessity or to ensure comfort? Always schedule pit-stops for your team when leading change.

Set meetings or create opportunities to have unplanned conversations with different team members to seek their views on how it’s going. What is going well? What can be improved? What have we not considered that you think we have missed?

Make sure you listen—and act on what they tell you. You don’t have to agree, but seriously consider what they say. Also, don’t just go to the positive members of the team. Seek out the not so positive and get their feedback too.

Finally, it is always good to remind people of what the vision and goal is—why it will be worth the change. And sometimes, just a thank you for the hard work that is being completed with no fruit to show for their labor. The appreciation of what is being done and the part they are playing is sometimes more important than the recognition of what is being achieved.

Stop Managing People

Here is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, not just about change, but about being a manager: lead your people and manage your resources. Sounds simple and perhaps obvious, but it’s worth revisiting.

We employ people to perform tasks to achieve results, whether day-to-day or as we deliver change.

It is easy to focus on what needs to get done, to hit the deadlines, achieve the milestones, and complete the tasks.

But only by engaging and inspiring our people will we achieve sustainable success. Always make time for people—deal with their fears, their reservations, their questions. Be clear about what is expected from them but also communicate the kind of support and direction you will provide. As a leader, your role is to support their success by providing the best possible environment for them to operate in, provide a culture that embraces change, and encourage the development of their day-to-day processes so they can be translated into the success of the change they bring to the organization.

If your people are not achieving what is expected, move the discussion from ability to attitude. You can teach and train skills and competency, but attitude is 100% the responsibility of the person. Be clear about the demarcation and lead accordingly. Don’t accept mediocrity—it is the quickest way to demoralize the entire team and lose their respect.

Success is achieved by your team and via your leadership. Embrace change with them and lead how you would like to be led.

Remember that everyone is leading a different life, with different mindsets, with different life challenges to overcome and different aspirations when it comes to their work and careers. Treat every person according to who they are, support them but most of all inspire them to be the best version of themselves, whatever the role they perform under your leadership. Change is not something you do to people; it is something you do with them.

Get your copy of this white paper to learn more about how important leadership is during times of transition and disruption.

Brian Morgan

Future of Work