I’ll never forget the first night my wife and I spent in our new house after a long moving day.
It was evening when we finally sat down to reflect on the day’s events. The children were upstairs in their barely-made beds, surrounded by half-opened boxes with clothes pouring out.
Our furniture was tentatively placed in rooms that were loosely defined from a couple of visits and my crudely made floor plan.
We weren’t sure which room we’d put the TV in so we picked one of the rooms on the main floor and I plugged in some wires.
We huddled up on the couch and tried to focus on the show but we couldn’t. We were distracted. Distracted by every new sound we heard through the open window, every voice, every car door, every little breeze, every normally unnoticed sound you notice because it’s the first time you’re hearing it.
Don’t get me wrong…we were filled with the excitement of new. This was what we had wanted to do.
But just hours earlier we had lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes as we closed the door for the last time on a place that, just 9 years earlier, had been the beginning of our biggest adventure together, a place where so much had happened.
It’s funny how you can see history in an empty room. It’s strange how you can touch a door handle and a flood of memories go through you.
And while you can also see the future in an empty room, it doesn’t impact you the same way.
The future seems to be more of a dream. It’s not so clear.
It’s because the past, even though it’s gone, holds the power of being the way things have always been. Or so it seems, because it’s been so long since the last change.
It doesn’t matter whether that’s in our personal life or in our work. The past has power.
So if you’re a leader who needs to help people through change, that's what you’re up against. A past that has an incredible hold on most people. Especially if it has been a good past, a great past, a past that has served you well.
Hey! Wait a minute!
As powerful as the emotions were for us in letting go of the old house, we had a big advantage compared to employees in the workplace. We had made the decision (albeit scary at the time) to move. It was something we felt we needed to do.
Employees, on the other hand, are often informed that there are going to be some changes coming. It could be in the way of doing things, a re-assignment of roles, or possibly a whole new direction for the organization that will require a major re-tooling.
For many people there’s going to be a “Hey, wait a minute – what’s happening here? I’m going to need to do what?” moment. Even though they might not say it out loud, you can bet it’s going on inside their head and, for sure, it’ll come out later in conversation with a colleague or a spouse.
And there are good reasons people feel this way.
People have a strong belief that the longer they’ve done something a certain way, it must be good.
Companies use longevity all the time to show their success. The fact that they have been around and doing things a certain way for a number of years is a key selling feature. Heck I even do that by telling folks I’ve had my own business for 20 years now. See, you’re impressed, aren’t you?
Just for fun, here’s a list of the oldest companies in the world still in business. You’ll recognize some names for sure. Look at that list and you’ll be impressed, and you’ll think they must be doing something right.
Almost like when you meet someone in their 90’s, you want to ask, “How did you do it?” They must have done something right.
Think of the confidence people develop in a job after a period of time; how they have mastered it and perform it with ease; how they can work hard yet be relaxed at the same time. They have a mastery that comes from experience and repetition.
Now think of how they will feel when you ask them to do something new, something that may require learning new skills, developing a new way of thinking, moving to a new office (thereby changing their commute and losing some colleagues).
Depending on where they are on the good ol’ comfort-with-change spectrum, this could be difficult. And I’d argue most folks are near the bottom or resistant to change. You can check out my infographic in my post How to be comfortable with change before it’s too late
Here’s what helps.
Getting back to our house.
It’s hard to define exactly when our change started. Was it that first night sitting there on the couch? No, I don’t think so.
Did it start 1 ½ years earlier with the birth of our second child? Was it the fact that our oldest was about to start kindergarten? Both of those, probably.
The thing was, we could feel it coming. We began to imagine a change. We began to get comfortable with it in our own way and create a time frame in our minds about when we would like to start making a change and how that might happen. We began to give it a shape. We began to dream.
And this was important. Because dreams have a great way of making change really easy.
But it wasn’t until we were sitting there looking change in the eye and there was no going back that things really took off.
We talked about where the furniture should go or about how great the nearby park was; how the neighbours seemed nice; how we needed to go buy some new art; how we’d get a swing set and plant a garden; how we finally had room to have the family over for dinner and not feel squished.
We started to form a vision for the future, and even if it wasn’t as clear as the past, we started feeling better.
I can’t say that we felt comfortable right away. It felt very different. It took time to get used to the ways the sounds bounced off the wall and that we couldn’t hear each other as well as before.
And it didn’t make us miss our old place less… well, not just yet.
Stay in touch
Those in charge of making change happen in organizations have a big challenge. They need to get employees to not only see what the future will be but to make them confident that the future will be better.
They need to remember that we all have a hard time letting go of what was, because it is our past that has made us who we are.
They need to address peoples’ fears, and this is difficult because those people are busy and deeply involved in making today happen.
As leaders, you’re the ones steering the ship. And if you’re steering the ship, you’re always looking ahead at the challenges and opportunities that might be coming your way.
You know that change is always a possibility, either a change to avoid a bad situation or a change to be innovative and keep moving forward. Most leaders find change exciting.
You’re probably confident because you know you have good people working for you that get the job done every day. You think they can handle change just fine.
But they don’t see the world the way you do. They’re too busy doing the day-to-day things that need to be done to keep the ship afloat and moving forward. And they’re damn good at it. At least, ones who care are.
So when you tell people things need to change, they need time to get their head around the idea.
They actually have to find a way to let go of what they have been doing for a while to make room for new ideas, learn new skills and develop new ways of thinking. And that’s not easy for anyone.
You need to remember it’s not so much that change is the problem; it is that sudden change is the problem.
How to HELP YOUR TEAM.
1) No surprises - Plant the seeds of change as early as you can. Share your vision and reasons about how change will benefit everyone. Generate some excitement. Don’t just talk about how the company will be more successful. Bring it home to each department and as close to each person as you can.
2) Make change measurable - The more you can break things down into bite-sized logical steps, the better. Small reachable goals. This helps to make the change gradual and get people comfortable.
3) Stay in touch - Don’t just lay out a bunch of changes and walk away. Remember how hard this is for people and be empathetic. Help people get through it by listening to them when things are difficult, and work together to find solutions.
4) Give them new skills - Going in a new direction may require people to do things they haven’t done before. Make sure you give them the skills they need to feel like they’re not falling behind.
5) Beware the nay-sayers - There are always going to be some who put up a real fuss. You’re going to have to figure out how to handle them. If they’re a good employee and you want to keep them, then bringing them on board is going to take some extra time. They may have good reasons for resisting and you should hear them out. If your nay-sayers are not such good employees… well it’s probably time to let them go because they’re just going to hold everyone back.
6) Realize you’re in it together - There are bound to be hiccups anytime there’s change. By working closely with your employees and listening when things are not going smoothly, you can adjust. Remember you’re going somewhere new. The path to the future is not as easy to see as the past, so you’ll probably need to make adjustments on the fly. It’s your staff who have the best view on what’s working and what’s not. Listen to them.
It’s not so different
So whether it’s moving house or changing things at work, good planning is the key. Nobody likes a sudden change. Most of us human creatures like to get comfortable with new ideas. So if you’re in charge of change, it’s up to you to bring people along. If you can be inspiring, motivating, understanding and have a certain sense of practicality, you stand a good chance of pulling it off.
As time goes by…
You know… we drive by that old place sometimes. And I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t stir up some emotions in us – just looking at that familiar front door. But at the same time, we know we couldn’t live there again because we’re not the same people who used to live there. We’ve changed.
It’s the same for your employees. They’ll change too! You just need to give them some time.
Got some advice on helping people deal with change? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave it in the comments.