How to Lead Change Without Stressing Everyone Out

March 1, 2022

What's stressing you out at work right now?

Let me make an educated guess: change.

Ready or not, Covid-19 brought massive change to most industries.

Healthcare workers have learned how to manage a pandemic-sized patient population. Their rates of burnout are now so high that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently earmarked $103 million to address the issue.  

Educators and teachers have rebuilt the education plane while flying it, sending their stress and depression levels sky high.

 Hospitality workers have created new business models to serve their employees as well as customers.

And we all have learned how to conduct business in a virtual world

The black clouds of crisis do have this silver lining: they force us to stretch, grow, and become more resilient than we ever dreamed possible. 

The term "resilience" implies that we become more flexible and amenable to change. But the way we go about implementing change matters. Change can lift burdens, but it can also add to them. The goal, then, is to understand how to lead change without stressing everyone out. 

What makes change so stressful?

Researchers have known for decades that two features of a stressful situation can make a huge difference in its impact: predictability and control.  

Makes sense, right? If we can see something coming, we can better brace and prepare for it.

And if we feel we have some control over what's going on -- even it's a tiny bit -- we struggle less with stress-related issues like frustration, anger, anxiety, and the big one that everyone's talking about right now: burnout.  

Leaders may forget these two key factors as they plan organizational change. And it's understandable, since they view things from a different vantage point. Those at the upper levels of an organization can scan a larger horizon and see change coming from a longer distance than those on the ground. And of course, they are usually the ones controlling and driving the change.   

From the ground, though, change can seem sudden. Stressful. Scary, even. And if employees fear change, they will resist it. 

To accept change, employees must first understand it. 

A few years ago, organizational psychologist Anna Kraft wrote a great article on leading change [1].

According to Kraft, there are four phases to a change: 

  1. Exploration ("Should we change?")
  2. Preparation ("How will we change?")
  3. Implementation ("Let's change.")
  4. Evaluation ("How did the change go?")

To support change, employees must first understand it. At each phase, they will go through a process of "sense-making," asking questions and raising concerns in order to wrap their heads around it and decide if they buy into it or not.

Leaders can quell a lot of anxiety simply by being "sense-givers" at every phase. Their job is to answer questions and address concerns. And as anxiety levels go down, so will resistance.

There's only one trick. To provide the right support and "sense-giving", leaders should understand that employees will have unique "sense-making" needs at every phase. 

Exploration Phase:

When an organization is exploring the need for a change, the employees' main need from leadership is reassurance. Employees may be floundering in a fog of rumors and hearsay. And as their sense of predictability and control go down, their stress levels will rise.

At this phase, leaders can clear the fog and cut stress levels with receptive sense-giving. This means addressing fears and concerns through open, intentional dialog. Holding town halls, strolling through hallways, and keeping the office door open are great ways to signal attentiveness to employee needs and encourage conversation. Addressing rumors can often move employees away from excessive fear and anxiety and into a more rational exchange of thoughts.

At this phase, a leader may ask or say:

  • "What's on your mind? What do you have questions about?"
  • "How can I address your concerns? What's making you afraid of this change?"
  • "Here's what we think might change. Here's what will not change."
  • "The leadership team is here for you. Please let us know what information you need right now."

By clearing up any confusion and signalling company stability, you are increasing the employees' sense of predictability.

Preparation Phase:

Once preparations begin, employee stress levels may spike once again. They may swing between hope for better days and fear that things will only get worse. At the core, the question on everyone's mind will be, "What will this change mean for me?" So, the main need at this phase is orientation.

Leaders can lower the employees' stress by inviting them to participate in the change. They can solicit their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. They can make room for employees' emotions. They can brainstorm opportunities that may arise for individuals based on the change. All of these steps will continue the open dialogue of the exploration phase and create an atmosphere of mutual trust.

At this phase, a leader may ask or say:

  • "Let's discuss what this change will mean for you."
  • "The opportunities I see for you in this change are..."
  • "What experiences have you had that may help us here?"
  • "What are your ideas?"

By inviting employees to participate in the change, you are increasing their sense of control.

Implementation Phase:

When implementing a change, things may not always go as smoothly as leaders hope. Employees may get impatient and frustrated if the process slows down or slides sideways for a while. They may also lose sight of the long-term, positive outcomes of the change, and instead remain focused on short-term negatives. So, what the employees need during the implementation phase is balance.

Leaders can provide this with compensative sense-giving. Balancing out the message doesn't mean shutting down frustrated employees. It means allowing them to voice their challenges, taking time to think through what they've said, and then saying, "Okay. I hear your concern. What can we do better?"

Leaders can also maintain momentum of change by building in some quick wins and celebrating those. This will make the positive outcome more tangible and visible to the rest of the organization. Leaders may ask or say:

  • "I hear your concerns, and here is how we will address them..."
  • "I know there are problems right now. Here is how things will ultimately get better."
  • "What are some quick wins that would lift everyone's spirits?"
  • "What positive message can we convey about the change right now?"

Evaluation Phase:

Looking back on a change initiative, employees will evaluate the change in objective terms, i.e. "Was this good for the organization?" but also their own role in it, i.e. "Was this good for me?" The change will have exacted some sort of cost. During the evaluation phase, employees will decide if the cost was worth it.

A key factor in this decision is acknowledgement. This can make or break the employees' ultimate opinions about the change, and importantly, their willingness to undergo the next one. If they feel negatively about their own role in the past change, they will cast a gloomy light on the ones that follow. However, if they look back with satisfaction on their own contributions to the change ("The company valued my opinion; they took my concerns seriously and acted on them;" "I contributed to this change in an important way"), they will likely spread this satisfaction sunshine over future change initiatives, too.  

Leaders play an important role in evaluative sense-giving. First and foremost, they can encourage open, honest dialogue about what went well and not so well. This is a time to celebrate successes and thank everyone for their hard work. 

Leaders may ask or say:

  • "What was our biggest success? What was our biggest loss?"
  • "What mistakes did we make this time? What can we do better next time?"
  • "We thank you for your contribution to this change. More specifcally, we appreciate that you...."
  • "We are proud of our spectacular employees and could not have done this without you."

Watch the video version of this post!

If you're interested in watching a 3 minute video that summarizes the points above, you can find it here.

[1] Kraft, A., Sparr, J. L., & Peus, C. (2018). Giving and making sense about change: The back and forth between leaders and employees. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(1), 71-87.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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