Whether change comes in the form of massive culture change or switching flavors of coffee creamer in the breakroom people often struggle to adapt to the new and unfamiliar. One of the biggest roadblocks I see when it comes to change in organizations is tension between frontline, mid-level and executive leadership. Change can be scary and uncomfortable, but leaders can provide reassurance and ease transitions through authentic, courageous, and humane behavior.  

First, let’s explore some reasons leaders struggle when it comes to implementing changes at work 

  • Frontline leaders are frustrated that they are being asked to do things that aren’t being modeled by senior and executive leaders.  
  • Frontline leaders are willing to make changes and want support from mid-level and executive leaders, but mid-level and executive leaders interpret the ask for support as lack of ownership/accountability. Mid-level and executive leaders may even feel like Frontline leaders are blaming them for difficulty implementing changes. 
  • Leaders underestimate the power of culture (or social norms within the organization), and how much stubborncultural norms can impede behavior change.  

Here are my four tips for leading change:  

Leaders go first. Sorry, but not sorry. If you are an executive leader, or are at the very top of an organization, then you set the stage. If you want people to speak up when things are off, then you do it first. If you want people to hold others accountable, then model that behavior by holding your own direct reports accountable. If you want people to stop complaining, then stop complaining about people complaining. When an organization is designed with any kind of hierarchy and culture is not open and flat, then leaders go first. If you don’t want to go first, then choose a different design.  

 Take off your armor. Armor is the word we use to describe vulnerability avoidance behaviors that we engage in to keep ourselves “safe” from uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. The most common forms of armor include blame (instead of accountability), shaming language (focusing on people instead of people’s behaviors), criticism (judgment versus actionable feedback), us versus them (“You need to…”) and being right (asserting what you think is correct versus trying to get it right). 

 Stay open and curious especially when you aren’t sure what to do. It’s more effective to engage in “tell me more” than to respond urgently without digging deeper. My favorite ways to stay open and curious are challenging my assumptions, reality checking stories I’m telling, and asking “What more do I need to know or understand before responding?” 

 Respond with empathy even if you disagree or have a different perspective about what people are sharing with you or asking of you. Empathy is like a nourishing balm when used effectively. I like Brené Brown’s approach: 1.) Stay out of judgement, 2.) Perspective take (not what is your perspective/experience, but what’s theirs), 3.) Identify the feeling or emotion, 4.) Communicate your understanding of that feeling or emotion, and 5.) Mindfulness (be careful not to take on other people’s emotions and experiences in order to avoid empathy fatigue). 

 Embracing change is not easy, but adaptability is attainable with practice and support. With leaders who practice what they preach (leading by example), avoid armoring behaviors which mask and deflect the natural emotional import of uncertainty, and approach change openly and empathetically, change can become less intimidating and more peaceful for everyone involved.