Three steps to rapidly increase engagement with change

By Heather Campbell

This month a lot of my focus has been on leading major change. That’s because several of my coaching clients are doing that right now and it’s been a significant part of our work together. Three of these Managing Directors are dealing with major change that is not of their making.

We often think that CEOs and Managing Directors are the instigators of change but, of course, that is often far from the reality. With the three Managing Directors I’ve been working with, none of them has chosen the change they have to lead. That’s a tough place to be because they’ve had to quickly get to a position where they can lead this change with conviction and confidence. As Managing Directors, they don’t have the luxury of either denying or resisting the change. They can’t be change saboteurs.

However, as human beings, they still experience the emotions that any human being experiences in this situation. They feel frustrated, demotivated, angry, threatened.

The challenge in our coaching conversations over the last few weeks has been how to move from the position of emotions that are unhelpful given the roles they hold to one of conviction and confidence.

In our sessions, we’ve worked through the three-step framework I’ve set out below. This is based on research I carried out many years ago when I was exploring how to move people from a negative place to a positive place with change. I was familiar with the change curve – Denial, Resistance, Exploration and Commitment – my research was to find out how to help people move through these stages more quickly and easily.

My research showed that there are three key factors that will get results fast. I’m sharing them with you today because you might be in a position where you have to lead change that you aren’t currently feeling positive about. Or you may be the instigator of change that you need others to engage with.

Whichever position you’re in, consider how you can incorporate these three steps.

Focus on creating Meaning

Meaning is all about clarifying the reason for the change; it’s about ensuring the change makes sense within the context of the individual’s world. If you’re about to disrupt someone’s world, they’ll engage with it far more easily if they understand the WHY not just the WHAT. Lack of Meaning was exactly the cause of the resistance one of the Managing Directors was experiencing.

The Group CEO had identified some specific changes but the rationale for these wasn’t clear. To work through this and move from feeling frustrated and resistant to the change, the Managing Director has now spent considerable time with the CEO really listening to their reasons for the change, focussing on getting underneath these reasons to the deeper, personal rationale. This has paid dividends because the Managing Director now realises that the change itself is less impulsive than it initially appeared, and it has built a more collaborative approach between the Managing Director and the CEO (historically, relations haven’t been particularly positive between them). As both the relationship and understanding have built, the Managing Director’s resistance has reduced. He has been able to genuinely engage with the CEO’s ideas and begin to influence the CEO as well.

When it comes to change that you are leading, always take time to really position the change, the WHY, the Meaning of the change in a way that makes sense to the people who must implement it. And if you are the unwilling instigatee (I know it isn’t a word, but it should be 😉), then take time to really understand the WHY from the other person’s perspective to help you build greater Meaning for yourself.

Understand the Impact on the Individual

It’s a rare change that has no impact on any human being. It’s also a rare change that only has positive impact for everyone it touches. Therefore, it’s wise to take time to understand the impact change has on those affected by it.

One of the Managing Directors I’ve been coaching this week was struggling with the Impact of a looming change. This has built into anger and frustration with the CEO, who is leading the group-wide change, about a myriad of immaterial things. This was unusual because, unlike the example above, this individual and his CEO have had a strong working relationship.

Stepping back to look at the anger and frustration he was feeling, this Managing Director realised just how disappointed he is that the change is happening because it will take him away from a role he is very much enjoying and where he is seeing the fruits of organisational change he has been implementing. Like a child having a favourite toy taken away, he’s been (metaphorically) throwing a bit of a tantrum and also realised this was without good reason.

Ironically, again unlike the Managing Director in (1), this leader clearly sees the Meaning behind this change. Indeed, it is one that he would implement were he in the CEO’s seat. It’s just that he’d rather keep his favourite toy and doesn’t want to give it away.

Having realised this, he’s been able to look at his options, discuss his views with the CEO and make sense of what had previously seemed like somewhat irrational responses to minor issues.

When you are leading change, take time to understand the impact of those changes on the individuals around you. Impact is nearly always personal so I recommend that you explore this in one-to-one conversations rather than team meetings or even through more general briefings and Town Halls.

And if you are going through change and are finding yourself struggling with the Impact it may have for you, take back control by exploring your concerns about any negative impact and considering your options for working through these.

Give Control and Choice

As human beings, we like to have control over things that matter to us. To have control, we want to have choice – we want to make the decisions. When important decisions are taken away from us, we lose our sense of control and that can quickly lead us to a position of resistance.

This is exactly what has happened with the third Managing Director. Once again, a Group CEO has introduced a change that is impacting across a number of businesses within the organisation. The Managing Director is onboard with the Meaning – the WHY – of the change. He is also comfortable with the ultimate impact it will have for him and his business. However, the CEO has been getting into a level of granularity with decision-making that means he is stepping into the Managing Director’s territory.

“If he’d even just discuss some of these with me before he announces them at Board meetings, it would help”, was the Managing Director’s biggest frustration.

Understanding that he needs to find a way to get back control and get more involved in decision-making, the Managing Director has been able to figure out which decisions really matter and which he can give way on. He has been able to work these through with the CEO and get in place some agreements about which decisions he will make, which the CEO will consult him about and which the CEO will inform him about before making the announcement at the Board. It isn’t a perfect outcome, but having increased his sense of control and choice, the Managing Director now feels more confident and constructive.

When you are leading change, make sure you give people control and choice over the things that matter to them. One of the mistakes that change instigators often make is that they give people control and choice over things that they don’t particularly care about – and actively avoid giving them control over the bigger decisions that do matter to them. This is just demotivating for everyone.

And, if you realise that lack of control and choice is the cause of your resistance to change, take some time to figure out exactly what control you want to have again. Taking back control in even small ways can have a big impact because this is so fundamental for our mental and emotional well-being.

Meaning, Impact and Control – ignore these at your peril if you’re leading change! And if you’re finding yourself disheartened by change, which of these is missing for you? How can you work to get them back again?

And as always, whether going through change or not, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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