Organizational change initiatives trigger anxiety across the corporate hierarchy in even the best of times. But in an era where a storied firm like Lehman Brothers can go bankrupt almost overnight and the Dow’s fluctuations can make one dizzy, they can elicit fear, even panic.
In such times, calls to change can also provoke especially intense resistance. When uncertainty is such a prominent — and threatening — feature on the external landscape, people crave constancy and routine inside their organizations.
Of course, it’s when economic conditions are most unstable that companies most often need to change, and change quickly if they are to survive. Managers, then, face a daunting task. To help their organizations weather a downturn, they need to ensure that employees fully buy into change initiatives and make the necessary alterations in their day-to-day behavior–at precisely the same time their employees are likely to be most anxious about, and resistant to, change.
Large-scale change initiatives, such as mergers or restructurings, aren’t alone in eliciting strong responses. In an anxious era, even more, modest initiatives, such as the adoption of a new IT system or a sharper focus on product innovation, can push distressing emotions to paralyze levels.
Here is something for all leaders to keep in mind: uncertainty fuels anxiety and anxiety sabotages productivity. Your job as a leader is to help your team members embrace change by reducing anxiety and increasing motivation and engagement. There are five main types of unclarity through organizational change:
1. The unclarity of change narrative.
2. The unclarity of expectations
3. The unclarity of roles and rules
4. The unclarity of procedures
5. The unclarity of status and sense of competency
Everyone knows that unclarity and uncertainty are stressful. But what is not so obvious is that uncertainty is more stressful than predictable negative consequences, according to recent research from the UCL Institute of Neurology.
There are prehistoric reasons for this. We know as humans since ancient times that the thing that might be lurking behind that rock or bush or up in that tree could harm, kill, or quite possibly eat us. Brains are adaptively wired to react to uncertainty this way, from way, way back in our ancestral history. Just because we’ve launched ourselves (and our brains) into this techno-socially advanced era doesn’t mean our brains are reacting less or even differently; they are just reacting to different threatening possibilities—some physical and many more are just perceived by us as potentially dangerous.
What that tells us is that if you are incorporating organizational change as a leader, your main combat is not with change resistance. Your main combat is with uncertainty. This means that the clearer your team is about why the change is needed, what you expect of them and that you support them through the process, the more powerful and effective team you will have.
Here are three actionable steps that you can start implementing immediately in order to increase clarity and reduce anxiety and resistance for your team members through organizational change:
Step 1: Tell them exactly what you want
This sounds easy to do but my experience has been that many times leaders are not clear themselves about what they want because the leaders above them aren’t that clear either. Pledge to clarify everything to yourself first. If you are not clear about the what, why and the how of change, stop, clarify it to yourself first, and only then continue to communicate expectations and procedures to your team members.
Step 2: Model the change that you are asking for
As a leader, all eyes are on you. You cannot ask your team to behave in ways that you are not modeling yourself. It simply will not work. Get clear about the culture, values, and expectations that you have from them, and hold yourself to the highest standards. Team members will notice and follow. This will not only have a reassuring effect, but will also serve as an additional means of clarifying what exactly is expected and how.
Step 3: Measure success on an ongoing basis
One of the impacts of organizational change is feeling busier and oftentimes overwhelmed. It is easy to assume a lot of information as far as how team members are doing, and that is not the path you want to choose. Determine 3-5 parameters for success and measure them on an ongoing basis, weekly or monthly. This clarity on what exactly is going on and what team members are struggling with; will give you valuable data in terms of where things are at and will allow you to act swiftly to adjust and assist effectively through change implementation.