“Deal with it” is probably not a great coping mechanism.

Shock and disbelief. Anger and negotiation. Depression. Exploration. Acceptance. These are all states of change that employees (and bosses!) go through when an organizational shift occurs. I’ve been through each of these many times, and will go through them again in the future.

My team was broken, along with a chunk of my heart. A major reorganization included a “sell-off” of our business unit, and there were some strange choices that had to be made. As a manager, I had to explain these changes to my employees, but as an employee myself, I felt emotionally flattened. We had worked so hard to make our business a success, but a strange coup had formed in the leadership above me, and my immediate supervisors and I had decided to stay with the larger organization.

As a global leader in a large company, I had a range of unexpected discussions with my team, and tried to help others understand what would happen now with our business, our clients, and our employees. To be honest, I probably handled some of those discussions poorly, in part because I was coping with massive change myself.

Some employees, though, refused to change to accommodate our new business practices. As a leader, I didn’t have many options, and I eventually had to dismiss the employees. Many years later, the question still lingers: Could I have done something different to help them change?

Why, how, and when will this affect me?

Our survival mechanisms in times of change drive us toward the pragmatic questions of “what comes next?” In times of major business change, answering these questions helps ground the team (Powers, 2018). Leadership empathy is a skill that rises to the top as a key success factor for teams experiencing significant change.

A note about leadership empathy:

Not everyone is naturally empathetic, and I think we have all experienced interactions with others that came across as insensitive or uncaring, triggering a range of emotions and reactions. There are also times when you are personally struggling to deal with so many emotional triggers that you are incapable of being sensitive for others’ emotions. However, as a leader, demonstrating empathy (sharing feelings with someone) will get you further than being sympathetic (feeling sorry for someone. (I have a feeling this will be a post at a later date!)

The Process

Now, back to your employee: How do you help them participate in change?

Can you be empathetic with an employee who stands in the way of changes that your team needs to embrace? My personal feelings and experiences are a bit mixed on this point. In part, the situation’s seriousness relies on the scope of the change, the business needs, the employee’s understanding of the change, and whether or not the employee’s role can accommodate the change effectively. 

The rest is leadership, pure and simple. Your job is to build the bridge from employees to organizational success, and that means that the extremes simply won’t work: Being either ruthlessly driven to eliminate team members struggling with the change or constantly making allowances for employees not completing their work will not lead to success. Here are some tips for addressing the changes:

    • Speak with your team with as much honesty as you can. There are going to be times when you can’t share everything. You can be honest about that, too. When asked a pointed question, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I do have some preliminary information about that topic, but I’m afraid that I can’t share any details yet.”
    • Refocus on the vision. Your organization exists to support a vision and a mission. As a leader, you are the embodiment of the organizational mission and vision to your team, and refocusing the team on short-term changes and adjustments to meet business needs is a critical component of getting the team members moving in the right direction.
    • Reframe the solutions. Some changes add responsibilities with fewer people, and employees may refuse to participate in the change in a productive manner. If there are extraneous activities that can be reduced or eliminated, then investigate what can be accomplished with the remaining staff and what can be dropped. If everything is mission-critical, then expect employee burnout and a mass exodus from your team. I suggest having conversations with your leaders to help them understand the effects of the changes on the organization and the team.
    • Choose the right time and place to have difficult conversations. If you’re a distance leader, then this would be the right time to increase individual communications. Practice refocusing the conversations on business practices and your expectations of the employee. During your conversations with employees, you may hear frustration and reactions to changes that you cannot control. If you genuinely admit that you, too, are struggling with the changes and then refocus on the team objectives, you can enlist the employee’s help to stay productive.
    • Remember, change is an ongoing process. Just like learning a new skill, many employees need time to accommodate the changes… but sooner or later, the business must resume. Everyone needs a different amount of time to cope with change, and as a leader, you have to proactively assess your team members’ emotional and performance states. As a distance leader, you will also need to make additional efforts to reach your employees.
    • Structure your communications. At long last, here’s an advantage of working with distance teams: recorded team meetings. An effective strategy for distributed teams is to have a large team meeting that includes a detailed agenda and a well-thought-out flow of topics that can be covered and recorded. Employees can go back to this session after the fact or if they aren’t able to participate in the live session. Next, hold live meetings with individuals or small groups to provide clarifications and address any issues. The live meetings should end with a discussion of the importance of the employee contributions to meeting the team objectives.

But what if change won’t happen?

Similar to the employees that I had to dismiss in my previous organization, some employees will be unable to accept the change. Knowing that you have done what you could to keep them on the team is important, but helping the employee pursue different employment is part of being a leader, too. Having an existing rapport with your employees will help when you have to have a frank conversation about employment performance. Remember my comment earlier about empathy? That’s when you should bring out all the empathy you can muster.

The results and helping employees deal with change

Changes, both major and minor, are part of almost every work environment. Helping employees overcome change requires a wide set of skills, but two key components are honesty and truthfulness when talking to your employees. What strategies have you used to successfully navigate change in your organization?

Comment with your answers below!

Links

One of the easiest-to-digest resources for virtual team leadership is the Virtual Teams for Dummies book by Tara Powers. Chapter 17, entitled “Rolling with the Changes,” is an excellent overview of successful change processes for distance leaders. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

References

Powers, Tara (2018). Virtual Teams for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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