Leading through rapid change

Focus Area— Leadership Development

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Change is hard. We know this because we often spend a lot of time talking about change, but find it challenging to put it into action within organizations. We may even have whole systems set up to drive change while other systems may impede it. We often struggle to make significant change within organizations as we are continually balancing a range of stakeholder needs.

However, intense change is now upon us at a pace that many organizations and leaders have not prepared for—or ever experienced within their lifetimes. We are not just having to change WHAT we are doing or working on, but HOW we are doing it. Office life as we know it has been disrupted. People are now at home trying to manage themselves, their work, and their families. The stress of lost income for organizations and individuals is already rising among the worries about health overall. We are in a very different time to even just a few short weeks ago.

As a leader, it is your job to help your people and your organization navigate this change. You may not even feel equipped yourself, and yet others are looking to you for answers. This is a crucial time for you to step up as a leader.

Here are a few tips on how to do step up and lead through a time of rapid change.

Don’t panic publicly

Share your moments of worry and doubt with your personal network and to some extent, those supervising you. The people you lead need to see you being calm and steady right now.

Lead with intent

It is easy to be reactive in this current climate. And a certain level of reaction is even necessary. However, even as the emergency planning continues, it’s important to help people adjust to your “new normal.” Even if it’s just for a few weeks or months. Stay focused on the bigger picture and take time to be thoughtful in your written and verbal responses.

Lean on your risk takers

There is a well known “adoption curve” model that demonstrates that people react to change differently. Innovators and early adopters of ideas are at the front end of the curve. It’s helpful to know who these people are and lean on them for taking quick action during a time of rapid change. They will often be the people that respond with enthusiasm and energy to trying things out or who have ideas for doing things differently.

Trust the process

Those considered “early majority” are those that will follow the early adopters as they start seeing successes. The next group in the curve is the “late majority.” This group will only adopt as they see the majority of others getting more comfortable with the change. Once you have made some changes, let them take their course so that the adoption process can take hold. Continually changing things because you are hearing complaints from some of your people will only disorient the wider majority.

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Reassure but do not focus upon, your risk averse

The final group in the adoption curve are often called “laggards” or “skeptics.” In “normal” times, we often focus our efforts on trying to get this group to come around to the new thinking. This is a major factor in why so many change efforts fail. In a time of rapid change, it is crucial that you reassure this group but do not focus too much as they will struggle with everything that is happening. You have to make quicker decisions and be more nimble than you might normally operate in your organization. As the change process unfolds, be extremely clear about your expectations for behaviour and results with this group. Having clear boundaries and instructions will help them navigate the change and their own reactions.

Be transparent

Emotions are high. People are working remotely. It is crucial that you are, and are seen to be, as transparent with information as possible. Sometimes that may mean telling your people you “don’t know.” Right now, your employees do not expect you to be an expert and there will be a level of empathy for you in trying to manage a lot of change. This empathy will erode if people sense that information is being held back or the communication channels are not as open as they need to be. In the absence of information and transparency, negative stories start to form and spread throughout the organization about what is happening. This can quickly create mistrust and anxiety, making it harder to maintain productivity. Sharing information in a timely way and often is crucial in a time of rapid change.

Distribute decision-making

When change is happening fast and people are working remotely, it is easy to create bottle necks by not being clear about what decisions people can take on their own or by not allowing them to make day to day operational decisions. Develop a decision tree within your senior leadership team and get clear about what decisions your staff can make on their own. Communicate this well and often to your middle managers and your staff. Support people in making decisions by also being open and okay with mistakes and letting them know you are there to help where needed.

Be self-aware

It is crucial to pay attention to your own emotions and tendencies in a period of rapid change. It may seem counter-intuitive to take time out to reflect as everything seems so urgent but that is exactly why as a leader, you need to do it. Your people will be watching you for clues on how you are reacting and operating, even if you are only meeting virtually. Your tone of voice and your own attitude to change will be conveyed and impacts how others will feel too. Be mindful of who and how you are, as well as thoughtful about how you communicate.

Know that you can only do your best when the external environment is changing so quickly and you are trying to adjust on a daily basis. However, stepping into your role as a leader and actively using the above helpful tips will help you build trust and solidarity within your team and your organization in the both the current situation and over the long term.

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