CHANGE is unsettling: there’s no escaping the fact. It could be developmental change – a tweak to current systems or a new member of the team – or something more transformational, such as embracing new technology or implementation of a new service model.
Whatever the change, it can trigger a range of unsettling emotions in a team. Fear, anxiety and even a sense of loss are not uncommon – for example the loss of a supportive relationship, or the dismantling of an aspect of a service which a team has invested time and energy getting right. Even if individuals accept that change is necessary on an intellectual level, unlearning things, breaking habits, working with new people or learning new skills and routines can be uncomfortable.
"It is the quality of change leadership, rather than the quantity of change, that drains or sustains."2019 Change Lab Workplace Survey
A common thread experienced by those successfully coping with change is emotional resilience – being able to persist despite setbacks, develop strategies to overcome doubts and keep trying when things don’t work out. Research shows us that emotional resilience can be developed – with leaders able to create conditions within which it is supported.
As a leader there are several tactics we can deploy to smooth the transition between the old and new – ensuring that emotional resilience can be supported. Here are 10 that can help.
1. Get your own house in order
Sometimes, especially when change is imposed on us, we need to do a bit of work as a leader to find a way to buy into it ourselves. This might involve investigating what the change will mean, how it will impact your team and perhaps you. We have to recognise, understand and steward our own mind and emotions about the change. If you can find a way to positively reframe the change for yourself and then the team, this will allow you to communicate positively about the change.
2. Be clear
Most individuals dislike uncertainty. If you are able to create and describe a clear, compelling picture of a future state – a destination postcard – then the team are more likely to feel comfortable enough to start letting go of the present and feel motivated to move towards that future. Tailoring that postcard to show individuals what it means for them specifically will be even better!
3. Talk less, listen more
A strategy that leaders often adopt when under pressure to implement change in a resistant team is something I term ‘steamrollering positivity’. We provide reassurance, tell people why things are actually really good or why they really shouldn’t be upset. Such a strategy is often received as dissonant, with the team feeling like we “just don’t get it” or we’re "out of touch” with the reality of the situation. Never brush off concerns; listen and do your best to understand and address them if within your control.
4. Recognise differences
Recognise differences within the team and the benefits these can provide. Instead of being frustrated by those individuals who seem to be resistant to a change, try to truly see their perspective. It may be unrealistic to expect everyone to be ‘jumping up and down’ excited about the change – and some people can focus on the negatives. But to really listen to why they are less excited may reveal a range of different and important insights which can help us better and proactively communicate, plan and manage the change process. Most people are not often resistant just to be “difficult”.
None of us are perfect (being honest) – we have our own strengths and weaknesses. Exploring the concerns colleagues are sharing can shine a light on our own limitations and the things we need to do better as change leaders. For example, maybe we haven’t properly thought through a new system or process and a more detail-oriented person in the team is ‘being negative’ for valid and helpful reasons (yes this is me!).
5. Adopt different approaches for people with different needs
Different team members will need different types of communication and support from you during the change process. Your responsibility is to recognise what these differential needs are. Some of us worry more about competencies required for the change. Will my skills be good enough? Will I be able to adapt? Others worry more about changing relationships during change. I’m going to lose my support system. Will I get on with my new colleague? Some of us fear losing control or autonomy. Will I be involved in the change? Will I need to change the way I like working? Understanding what people are worried about can help you better address their concerns as part of the planning process.
6. Help reframe challenges
We must recognise that all of us are susceptible to negative self-talk: I’m not good enough. I won’t be able to learn how to do that. They won’t listen to me. Helping individuals to be more aware of their own negative self-talk can help them take control of it. Encouraging the team to share these will allow you to start asking how they might think about the situation differently. The aim is to enable them to come up with realistic alternatives to substitute.
7. Provide psychological safety
Teams with high levels of psychological safety tend to have higher levels of emotional resilience. It is important to create spaces (e.g. in team meetings or one-to-one) where it is safe for individuals to voice concerns and share mistakes. Sharing your own questions, concerns or mistakes gives others permission to share their own.
Moderating how you and others respond to concerns and problems when you are trying to create a sense of safety is, of course, crucial. Make sure you listen to, understand and acknowledge what’s been said and any emotion that goes along with it. Approach the issue in a supportive way and follow through on what you say you intend to do. Helping colleagues to think positively about setbacks and mistakes provides a mechanism to learn and reduces the risk of learned helplessness.
8. Think inclusively
Never leave a man behind (or woman or person). Transitioning through change is a team sport and so taking the time to understand where each person is cognitively and emotionally is important. If anyone is struggling, it’s likely that you will see a change in their behaviour and communication style. Checking in early when you spot something out of the ordinary can prevent issues escalating and unharnessed negativity spreading through the team. Being socially connected can support emotional resilience and so encouraging the team to de-stress as a group and collaborate to create solutions is important.
9. Involve and engage
Whenever you get the opportunity, allow the team to control elements of the change and participate in its planning and implementation. This is likely to encourage feelings of empowerment and commitment, which support positive wellbeing.
10. Model resilience and adaptability
Encouraging emotional resilience in others starts with role modelling key behaviours as a leader. Such behaviours include managing your own emotions in the face of change, maintaining realistic optimism in the face of emerging challenges and keeping the team on track by reminding them about where they’re at in the journey (focusing on what’s been accomplished so far). These will help develop team confidence in your ability as a leader, which is likely to reduce their anxiety, particularly in times where high levels of uncertainty are at play.
The English writer Arnold Bennett said: “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by discomforts.”
Taking the time to understand and acknowledge those ‘discomforts’ will provide you with tangible insights, allowing you to adapt the way you approach change so wellbeing is supported.
This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.