When Change is Out of Your Control: What You Can Do
Have you ever experienced the shocking blow of an unforeseen major change in your organization? Three of my clients in the middle-management ranks of their companies are currently facing changes that were sudden, unexpected, and from their perspectives, out of their control:
- An IT organization notified of the decision to outsource several major functions
- A manufacturing division suffering the disappointment of a canceled major expansion
- An insurance firm undergoing reorganization that will entail relocating a significant number of personnel to a different region of the U.S.
What can a leader to when change is “forced” upon his or her team? One of my favorite models to use in situations like these is called the “Spheres of Influence” from leadership guru Stephen Covey:
The Spheres of Influence is a powerful coaching tool for ourselves as leaders as well as a potent exercise for our teams during times of unwanted and involuntary change.
To use the tool, ask yourself and/or your team:
What can we control? Regardless of your industry, your title or your specific circumstances, the answer to this is consistent. Typically, the answer is only ourselves – our individual behaviors and attitudes. However, this is not nothing. As the saying goes, “your attitude determines your altitude.” Moreover, in times of change, leaders “walking the talk” speaks volumes, and role models for others.
What can we influence? Although we cannot control the behaviors and attitudes of others, we can influence them. In my 25+ years of coaching leaders at all levels, there has never been an instance where I did not observe that an individual’s circle of influence was greater than they initially perceived. That’s the essence of Change Intelligence: cultivating awareness of our own behaviors so we can more effectively adapt to influence others. Often, an even small shift in our mindset or our approach will enable us to have a far greater impact than we had achieved in the past. For example, by sharing neuroscience research that shows that giving people some sense of “certainty” during a change process – such as by informing people of a date by which a significant announcement will be made, even if the details are unknown – an IT Project Manager was able to convince her Director and peers to begin the communication process much earlier than they had planned. A month after the announcement the director told the PM that the senior team was pleased with the decision to increase the communication cadence, since they perceived the tactic led to significantly less disruption than with previous reorganizations, giving people the degree of comfort they needed to continue focusing on day-to-day priorities even in the midst of significant uncertainty about their long-term roles.
What can’t we influence at this time? Of course, this is often the easiest question to answer. We may not be able to control the final decision to outsource, not expand, or downsize. However, by answering these three questions – and then by reversing the order, and challenging yourself and your team to consider whether all the factors that seem “out of our control at this time” actually are, unseen possibilities often appear. For example, the IT PM in the example above wasn’t able to control the ultimate direction of the senior team, but she was able to control – or significantly impact – the process by which the change was rolled-out in the organization.
Although the strategies I’ve shared thus far are very helpful in times of involuntary change, they are all reactive moves. What can we as leaders do to proactively prepare ourselves and our teams to cope with the inevitable changes sure to come, since we know organizational change around the world is exponentially increasing in pace, scope, and complexity?
Here are some practices to put in place today to set yourself up to take control of your future tomorrow:
At the individual level: Build trusting relationships with your staff, peers, and managers. Make it easy for others to be comfortable approaching you about issues and concerns. Take the pulse of how people are “feeling” in addition to what they are “thinking,” and use your own and others’ emotions as data. Mutually supportive connections will greatly increase your span of influence – relationships facilitate results. Also, when you build trust and connection during the “easy times,” the trust will be in place when the “change hits the fan.”
At the team level: Institute regular process checks on your team. Make room for “time-outs” in your meeting agendas to solicit input into what people see as challenges, and opportunities, impacting the group – and importantly, what they see looming on the horizon. Schedule informal walk-arounds where you ask team members questions such as, “How do you think we’re doing? What could we be doing better?”
At the organizational level: Create multiple methods to both effectively communicate information from the top-down, but also to elicit feedback from the bottom up. So often, executive communication regarding major changes is transmitted ineffectively, causing confusion and even fear. How can communications be tailored to specific audiences in ways that not only help them understand they “why and what,” but also the “how and when” and a positive part they can play, enabling some sense of personal control, or at least influence. The higher you go in an organization, the more difficult it is to get timely and accurate feedback about what is happening on the front lines and through the ranks. One of the most important – and most difficult – roles of middle- and front-line managers is to demonstrate leadership courage by giving feedback to those above them in the hierarchy about how changes are being perceived and the impact they are having – including at times that the “emperor has no clothes” and that the senior team may need to change how it is operating (walking the talk, providing resources, removing barriers, etc.) to enable the change to take root. Is there a courageous conversation you can facilitate right now? One that would have a positive impact for you and your team today? One that would enhance the possibility of effective upward influence for the future? I invite you to take 5 minutes today to identify 1-2 actions that will bring the greatest impact to you as a leader, to your team and for your organization and then schedule time to execute. Once you do, send me a reply to let me know how it went.