Our Learning & Development Manager, Christine Henderson, shares some thoughts on what changes might be afoot in the New Year, and how business leaders can tackle them. 

With Brexit looming and Donald Trump waiting in the wings, 2017 is inevitably going to be a year of change.  How will you deal with it?

When my eldest daughter started primary school in September 2008, the Head welcomed children and parents to the school with a talk about the future. She spoke about preparing children for jobs that didn’t yet exist. Her thought provoking words caused me amazement and a little alarm.

But, once I’d recovered, I realised that she was right. My daughter is now choosing her ‘options’, and it remains highly likely that the career she’ll embark on still doesn’t yet exist.  When she joins the world of work, that uncertainty will continue until she retires. Most of us who are already experienced in the working world are aware of the pace of change and uncertainty – and how we deal with it, or not.

But what is it that equips us with our ability to cope with change?

Change requires things to be done differently. That means learning – new skills, adapted skills, more information and additional knowledge – and, with learning, come mistakes.

Think about how we learn to talk. It doesn’t come overnight. It starts with communication via noise and gesture and is refined with repetition and practice until there are words and sentences, and dialogue is possible. There is failure along the way – how many times did my daughter miss out on what she wanted because I couldn’t work out what it was (and gave up – bad Mummy!)?  But, she persisted and learnt sentences (although now, typical teen, she has regressed to minimal single word interactions. I’m sure (hopeful) that the witty repartee will return in time). 

Lots of change, rather than improving our skill gradually with practice, does not enhance our ability to cope. It has the opposite effect. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale identifies death of spouse, divorce and marital separation as the 3 highest stressors. Other events listed include:

  • change in financial state
  • change to a different line of work
  • change in responsibilities at work
  • change in working hours or conditions.

So, lots of change is likely to lead to lots of stress. Lots of stress leads to loss of sleep, less effective employee performance, mistakes, illness, absence…

What can businesses and leaders do?

Firstly, take care of yourself. Ensure you get enough sleep, take time for meals rather than snacks, watch your alcohol intake, and make time for yourself, your family and whoever / whatever matters most to you.  If you let yourself go, you’re more likely to make poor decisions and be snappy or aggressive with others.  In short, you’re more likely to add to others’ stress.

Next, to guide yourself and others through change, bear the following in mind:

  • Vision

Establish what the future looks like, how it’s different to the present (and why the present isn’t good enough), why the future will be better.  Work with your team – help them to describe ‘now’ in their own words, to identify what could be better, have them set it out for themselves.

  • Communicate

As leaders, we know right from the start why there is change afoot, but the rest of the organisation don’t necessarily have that information. Share as much as possible as early as possible and you’ll find that people are more willing to change. Communicate early and people will understand your reasoning – it’ll have purpose and logic, and they’ll have a chance to determine what it means to and for them.  Give people time to communicate with each other.

  • Be visible

There’s nothing worse, during restructuring and change, than leaders huddled in meeting rooms or away having talks off site. It breeds fear and misunderstanding. Keep communicating – this isn’t just about words, it’s about body language (open) and listening (also open). A succession of heated words aimed at ‘the boss’ is much less damaging than snide comments or veiled remarks to clients or customers. Make sure you listen – don’t be defensive. Absorb it all and make the most of the intelligence you’re gathering. When you next speak to your team, use those words – they’ll be reassured that you’re talking the same language and have noted their concerns. Be honest – if you can’t resolve the issues say so, and explain why. Be open to suggestions – your team may have the perfect answer, don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

  • Define expectations

What’s going to change for individuals specifically? What will their role look like? What will they need to do to be successful?  These are all questions that people are interested in, helping them to adopt the changes as their own.

  • Confirm expectations

Expectations can contribute to stress levels, and can be daunting. Work with your team, help them identify which behaviours and tasks to ‘keep’, which to ‘ditch’ and which to ‘adopt’.  Help them understand that there are tasks associated with their job that are no longer useful – and that dropping them frees up time. Give them time to fail, offer them support and training, provide them with the tools to reflect and share learning.

  • Sustain energy

Once the change has happened, how do you maintain it as ‘business as usual’?  Keep discussing the present and the vision but ensure that the team can see the progress that’s being made. If you’re really brave, follow the Tata Group’s lead – they have an internal innovation awards programme (InnoVista) which includes a ‘Dare to Try’ category – an award for failures, judged on lessons learned rather than outcome. If you want to sustain the energy of change, reward change by recognising successful failure.

With extensive expertise in organisational design, Capital Law & People can work with you to identify your vision and your communication strategy. We can work with you on visibility, coach you to identify your own leadership style and facilitate team sessions to identify and agree expectations. We provide the legal support for peace of mind and offer a workshop – Leading Change Through People:  Successful Restructuring.