Managing Change in the Workplace – How To and How Not To!

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42 years is a long time to not experience much change in the workplace.

The organization I was leading had been using the same basic recipe for success since the 60’s. It had been phenomenally fruitful, and the trajectory of the organization always seemed to be going in the right direction. Until…

The world changed.

If you’re older than 30, you have lived through a tremendous amount of technological change. Depending on your age, you’ve likely handled the necessary adjustments with excitement, ambivalence, grumbling, or even anger.

As we’ve all learned in the last year, a change in the workplace is more complicated. It involves more people, systems, competition and honestly, more fear. Being intentional about strategically planning change management is essential and if you don’t do it well you can end up with chaos.

That’s what happened to me. For over 40 years my staff knew exactly what they were supposed to do each day. When I initiated some necessary and long overdue sweeping changes, I thought that my charisma and inspiration (insert sarcasm here) would carry the day.

I was wrong.

Over a period of time I became concerned that our changes weren’t being handled well by the team. It seemed like they understood the change, but productivity ground to a halt. I wanted answers! It was then that one of my key leaders called me out.

“Chris, do you know your goals and your priorities? Do you know what you’re supposed to do every day? Do you accomplish your goals?”

Yes. Yes. And yes, generally.

“We don’t.”


When managing change in the workplace, clarity is key

What I found out the hard way was that what my team needed was a clearly stated change management plan. But what they REALLY wanted was an answer to this question:

“When I walk into the office, what am I supposed to DO?”

Start with the”why”

We’ve already established that people generally don’t like change. But it’s been my experience that one component that will help them tolerate it if they know the reason it’s happening. The “why”.

The most recent example is the pandemic.

Many of my team members have small children, and working from home was going to be a hardship for them. In this instance, knowing the why didn’t make it easier, but it did provide context that helped them process the change.

Where change is less dramatic, it’s still important to be clear. In the example I shared above, the “why” was all about our team’s long-term effectiveness. They knew we were struggling with some of the new realities, and they knew changes needed to be made. But like most people, they were hoping the changes would be inflicted on someone else. When it hit them and their department, they needed to understand why it was important, and that was my job as their leader.

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Move to the “what”

The second question people ask (and in many cases, it’s the first question!), is “What does this mean for me?” Or, “What does this change about my responsibilities?”

For the most part, people don’t like surprises. Ok, maybe a surprise birthday party or a surprise gift. But NOT surprises at work, especially when they involve expectations and responsibilities. So it’s important for leaders to spell out the changes as specifically as possible. Over-communicate. Ask questions about their concerns. Listen. Answer them as honestly as you can. Then, rinse and repeat.

Here is a list of things a team member might be wondering when faced with change in the workplace:

  • Will this affect my compensation?
  • Could I lose my position, or even my job?
  • How will this change affect my reporting relationships?
  • Do I have new responsibilities? If so, is anything being taken off my plate?
  • Do the people in charge of the change know me and what I bring to the team? Do they care?
  • Will I have any say in this?

When asked these questions, it’s tempting to be vague and try and skirt the issues. Don’t. People are smart, and they’ll know when you’re dancing around a difficult topic. If their responsibilities will change, work through it with them. If their job status is in jeopardy, be honest with them and encourage them. If you’re asking for more effort, be straight up about your expectations.

A big part of managing change is drawing on the trust you have already developed with your team and making it an even stronger bond. By being honest about the “what”, they’ll know there are no hidden agendas, and when they need to know something that affects their lives and careers, you’ll let them know.

4 things that will help you manage change in the workplace

  1. Have regular one-on-ones to help ease the pain of change
    • Meeting regularly will de-mystify your team member’s anxiety surrounding the “newness” of their situation.
    • Make sure you’re asking good questions that help get away from a “status meeting” feel. Ask about how they’re handling the transition, specifically.
    • People are more comfortable accepting difficult information from people they know. Use these meetings to get to know your team member, and perhaps more importantly, use them so they can get to know you.
  2. Be specific about your expectations, and follow up regularly
    • Ambiguous expectations are killers when navigating change. Be over-specific about what your team member should be working on, and offer to help them work through the process of anything new they need to learn or understand.
    • Make sure the expectations are written down and are referenced regularly. Using a tool like Uptick will help you keep track of both the work and the comments about how it’s going!
    • When expectations are not met, work together with your team member on a specific plan to rectify the problem.
  3. Pay attention
    • I know that sounds odd, but when there is a lot of change there is typically a lot of chaos, and it’s easy to miss the signs of problems on your team. In the example I outlined above, I had never been busier in my life, and I missed the early signs of the problem.
    • Ask others, regularly, to give you feedback on the process. Ask your team, your peers and your leadership, and push them for constructive feedback. “You’re doing great” might feel good, but it probably won’t help you avoid the situation I found myself in.
    • And when you ask questions, (when gathering feedback or in your one-on-ones) listen to the answers to understand. Don’t formulate your responses, but soak in the input. Remember…you need to work together in the midst of change!
  4. Invite your team into the process.
    • One of the best things I did when confronting the problem I had was to set up task forces to address all the key areas of change. People got to choose what areas they wanted to address, and each task force presented solutions to the problems of change we were facing. We couldn’t address every issue or take on every solution, but the fact that we used some of the proposed solutions helped the team feel heard and a part of the process. It was a game-changer!

You can do this!

Managing change in the workplace can be one of the scariest prospects for leaders. Your team is looking to you for answers, and it’s entirely possible that you’re wondering what you’re supposed to be doing, too! By addressing the “why” and the “what”, being transparent and honest with your team, clarifying expectations and paying attention to how people are responding, you can get ahead of the problems! Then, by inviting your team into the change process, you’ll begin the process of building something really special with your team!

If you’d like some help navigating change, we do that! Click here for more information on how we coach leaders to improve how they lead and relate to their teams!

Want to be a better manager with a happier, healthier and more effective team? 

Sign up for a free coaching consultation with Uptick Co-founder Chris Zaugg to improve your team’s effectiveness by connecting relationally.

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