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Leading and Helping People in a Time of Change Published: Monday, November 2, 2009 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

The rate of change continues to accelerate as organizations attempt to learn new ways to respond to changing markets, new technologies, new customer expectations, and fierce competition. People are struggling to adapt effectively. Although they are becoming more resigned about the inevitability of change, they do not necessarily exhibit optimism about their ability to weather the process. In many cases they do not show much faith in organization leaders' ability to plan and manage these changes with appropriate attention to the needs of people. Everyone knows of or has first-hand experience with the pain of poorly managed change.

Too often leaders try to minimize the pain for their employees and themselves by implementing the change plan as quickly as possible. This is often an unconscious attempt to circumvent the natural, unavoidable, and painful human reaction to loss-the grief process. More than one leader has been heard to say to upset people, "What's the problem? You still have your jobs, don't you?" These leaders are ignoring the impact of the trauma and the associated need of people to grieve their losses and to recover, if over time they are to renew their commitments to their organization and its goals.

Change events can cause a variety of specific losses for the employee, including a valued assignment, an expected promotion, a trusted relationship, or even the job itself. The impact of the loss can be mild or severe; symptoms of stress typically include a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral problems. Their onset provides clear feedback that the individual is experiencing a loss. Sometimes people are so affected that their work performance suffers. They may be unable to accept the change, and this denial then prevents them from working in the new way. Rumors may be rampant, which tends to increase the stress as people feel more and more out of control; the result is further impaired performance.

The resolution of these symptoms and associated performance problems will be thwarted or eased by the way in which organization leaders respond. Typically, when managers become alarmed by inadequate performance, they invoke sanctions and discipline. Although this strategy of performance management and corrective action has its legitimate place, in a time of organization crisis its use may intensify rather than alleviate the performance problems. People may experience it as unfair punishment and shame, not assistance; these responses may further undermine the change effort.

There are powerful initiatives that, in the hands of leaders who understand the practical payoff and human decency of supporting traumatized people, enable renewal to occur more quickly and thoroughly.

  1. Leaders need to communicate as early and as openly as possible so that people can prepare themselves for the approaching change. They need to remind employees about difficult times in the past that the organization has weathered and the positive results that the change is intended to create. They need to sincerely ask employees for their help and support. As the change proceeds, leaders need to provide constant updates and repeated encouragement; they need to make themselves available for dialogue to clarify goals, time frames, and opportunities for all.
  2. Provide ongoing support groups to help people to help themselves and one another; the power of group support is well- documented in many fields, such as smoking cessation, weight loss, substance abuse, and grief recovery. During these groups or in individual support sessions with employees, managers can listen respectfully without trying to quickly fix the negative feelings. Nonjudgmental listening is a very powerful intervention, which is in short supply even in good times and especially rare in hard times.
  3. External Organization Development professionals can provide a variety of renewal interventions to help move beyond the confusion and pain. They can help organization leaders to articulate an exciting and energizing vision of the future, which can assist the organization to revitalize and be ready for movement. Team-building activities are particularly helpful when there are membership changes because of reorganizations or when new teams are being launched. Finally, this is a time for training in the skills of coping with and leading change.
  4. All organization members need to get involved if major changes are to be achieved, and a team of change agents can assist leaders to successfully undertake the process of dialogue, influencing, and innovating that the model identifies. The goal here is to define a new "Assumed Employment Contract" that clarifies the new "Gives" and "Gets" of the changed organization and that maximizes the interests of both the organization and its members.

It is common and completely understandable that significant organization change will be experienced as a loss and may trigger anger, cynicism, and fear; work performance inevitably is compromised. If the proper organization supports are provided, however, resolution and renewal are achievable. The strategies describe a successful cycle in which people learn that the old world, including its expectations for what the work experience will be, has changed. In place of these expectations, new ones are defined, and the community of organization leaders and members resolve the loss experience together and begin to face their work with renewed optimism and a sense of commitment to the new expectations for the future.


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