How do we lead a team through uncertainty and change?
This question gets to the heart of what it means to be a leader. The answer to this question is the answer to just about everything. Here’s my perspective:
A former mentor of mine used to tell this story during periods of change.
When you’re on an airplane, and it starts going through turbulence, the first thing people do is look up at the flight attendants. If you look up and the flight attendant is calm and happy and serving customers, you calm down, you relax, you assume everything is going to be ok. But if you look up and the flight attendant is nervous or panicking or visibly concerned – if, when turbulence hits, the flight attendant blinks - you start to panic, you start to worry.
Our job, as leaders during times of turbulent change, is not to blink.
This anecdote has always resonated with me. I remind myself of it whenever my team is faced with change. It has served me well, and I hope it will serve you well too.
What does it mean to “not blink”? It boils down to three specific things for me:
Be purposeful, not reactive
Inexperienced managers react to change. They take in a flow of inputs – complaints, concerns, frustrations – and they try to react to each one as they come. They favor speed of response over substance of response. They try to move quickly. They are uncomfortable in a state of flux. They exacerbate tension and anxiety with their own frantic energy. That leads to more panic, more chaos.
Experienced managers, on the other hand, are purposeful. They’ve been through change. They have the patience and calmness to sit amidst a chaotic, frenetic environment and make sound decisions. They communicate effectively, purposefully. They don’t react just to feel like they’re taking action. Instead of making 100 frantic reactions, they make 3 or 5 strong, purposeful moves.
Next time you’re in a crisis or managing through change, stop reacting. Stay calm, don’t blink, and take purposeful actions only.
Explain the context to everyone
One of the primary contributors to anxiety during change, is a lack of understanding for WHY the change is occurring. In the absence of proper context, people speculate – often leaning towards the worst-case scenario. The company must not be doing well. We’re definitely getting laid off. This is surely just the first of many changes.
When you don’t give people proper context, this is where their heads go. It’s a natural reaction. It’s understandable. But it’s also deadly if you’re trying to make productive, positive change.
My advice to leaders is to give people the full context for change as soon as you possibly can. Tell them why. Give them the business context. Empathize with their position. Walk them through the logic that has led to the current situation and decision making. Some leaders mistakenly assume people won’t understand or don’t need to know the context for change. I think this is misguided. Give people context – early and often.
Be honest and direct
Another mistake inexperienced managers make when leading through change, is to sugar coat things. Or to speak of changes in a manner that is unclear or convoluted or patronizing. They assume (wrongly) that people can’t handle the naked truth. That they need to be placated. In my experience, this is not the case.
My advice to managers, when leading through change, is to be completely honest and direct in communication. Tell people what is happening, what it means for them. They can handle it. It’s much better for people to have an accurate picture of what is happening, than it is to preserve some false sense of security.
With the beginning of a new year, we almost always see changes. Our teams change, our goals change, our industry changes. Things change, and most people struggle to handle the uncertainty and anxiety of it all. I hope these tips for leading through change were as helpful to you as they have been for me.
Happy New Year!