I can remember everything about the moment I got laid off from my job at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf: "Unfortunately, your job has been eliminated," the person delivering the news told me.

What I can't remember is anything she said after that. All I could think was, How am I going to pay my bills? Where will I go from here? How will I tell my wife?

While I didn't know it at the time, I was experiencing the first stage of change: "loss." According to Ann Salerno, we all experience stages of change much like we experience stages of grief. In the workplace change is, as the Buddhist saying goes, a constant. Yet, when implementing workplace change, leaders tend to overlook these stages.

I've experienced thousands of changes in my career, and the approach tends to be: throw employees into change and let them acclimate alone (or with limited support). In rushing to get people on board with change, leadership often bypasses the stages of change--particularly, "loss" and "doubt." And the results show: studies report 60 to 70 percent of change initiatives fail.

Change is on the rise in the working world--from new processes, to mergers, to new leadership. Minimizing the effect of change on your company means understanding Salerno's change model and providing employees with the support they need from the beginning.

Don't sell change, give employees time to process.

Say, for example, your company is moving locations: from a suburb to the city. As soon as you announce it, people are going to feel the presenting loss--the loss of that familiar location. They'll also feel the preoccupations that come with it: What will my new commute be like? Will the city be too expensive? Will I have to sacrifice time with my family? This is stage one, which Salerno calls "loss," that's defined by fear and even panic.

I had the same experience when I was laid off: I don't remember anything after hearing the news, because my head was spinning with similar questions.

Often, when announcing change, it's tempting to rationalize or sell change to employees. But while you've had time to go through these stages of change before the announcement is made, employees haven't. I've written before about empathy, and here's a moment where you need it. Your team won't be ready for any explanations or information just yet. Instead, present news succinctly, give them the time to process and be prepared to support them in the next stage.

Be ready with a support plan.

In stage two, "doubt," people feel uncertain about change, maybe resentful or angry. To effectively support them at this stage, ask the following questions:

  1. What are your concerns? You probably have a clear reason for making change: moving to a new location may make it easier to hire top talent, for example. But in the doubt stage, your employees still aren't ready to hear your rationale. Give them time to air their concerns--and listen.
  2. What information do you need? When people are upset about change, they usually don't have all the information they want, or they have the wrong information. Find out what employees want to know rather than telling them what you want them to know.
  3. Who would you like to get this information from? People also get upset when confronted with change because they're not getting information from someone they consider to be a credible source. In this situation, set ego aside: That source might not be you.

Remember, the pace of change will vary.

The rate people move through these stages will depend on the timing and intensity of the change. Introducing a new process outside of your company's busy season will likely go over quickly. An acquisition will require much more time.

The goal isn't to rush your employees through change, but to lead them through it. This will keep people from getting stuck in the early stages, and help everyone move forward to the next stages of change, where feelings of resistance or lethargy are replaced with energy and productivity.

Published on: Jan 24, 2018
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