Here’s why leaders should not try to lead people during change

By Heather Campbell

My first train journey in over two years feels totally familiar and strangely alien at the same time. Such simple things. Changing platforms that I used to navigate without even thinking wasn’t so straightforward today; I found myself having to think that bit more because of minor changes. Tiny pauses, but my journey has been a little bit less slick and less confidently undertaken than would have been the case in January 2020.

Change means adjustment. We hesitate more, even if that hesitation is slight. That sense of uncertainty and hesitation can also make us feel less confident in our actions. Change means things take a little bit longer as we process what is different and adjust our behaviours accordingly.

It’s this processing and adjusting as human beings that leads to the resistance I wrote about last week. Processing and adjusting our mindset isn’t something that we are set up to do easily in relation to most change that we encounter.

And it’s because of this human processing and adjusting that change often doesn’t get the traction its instigators believe it deserves. As a leader, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

And too often, despite knowing this, leaders still approach human change in the same way they approach change involving things. We try to manage it with objectives and plans and deadlines. But change for humans and change for things aren’t the same. Developing and introducing a new technology system is change. It can be managed because it doesn’t have a mind of its own (even if sometimes it feels like it does – I remember the pain of testing a new computer system a couple of decades ago).

Creating the space for people to process change and adjust to it is quite different. That’s why I like William Bridges Transition Model which works on the basis that things change; people transition. Transition is the mental and emotional process that people go through in response to change. The experience of going through transition takes time; it slows us down; it can lead to us feeling less confident as we make sense of the new landscape. Transition can’t be managed within the context of Gantt Charts, milestones and elapsed time.

That’s why people can’t be managed through change.

But while I don’t believe people can be managed through change, I don’t even believe they can be led through transition either – to me, this implies too much of a sense of making people transition according to the leader’s timescales and needs.

Because transition is a personal experience, people can be supported and guided through it, not led or managed.

I covered some of the key points about this in last week’s email where I explored how to support people through resistance. Next week, I’ll share the other crucial steps you must take if you are to be a useful guide for people in transition.

And, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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