The role of any successful team leader, manager or executive in an organisation today can be likened to that of a sports coach. Their focus should centre on developing their employees into “super-star players” by helping them to overcome obstacles, building and leveraging their strengths and ensuring employees’ hearts and minds remain engaged. These leaders-turned-coaches play another important role in their people’s lives – one that is essential to the success of the organisation. They help employees’ transition through the constant change that is inevitable at work and in their personal lives. This includes navigating both planned and unexpected change.
Managing planned change occurs one person at a time
Generally, when leaders talk about change, they are referring to organisational changes such as mergers, acquisitions, an altered business model or the effects of adopting automation. Such planned changes, even if the change is modest, are only successful if the employees involved are prepared to modify how they think and act when performing their day-to-day activities. It is important, before you reveal any upcoming change with your employees, to think about what will be the end-game for them. What will fall away? What will be new? What are your employees going to have to start doing that they have ever done before?
As you consider the actions that will make it easier for your employees to move through these changes, keep the following four helpful actions in mind:
- Increase their understanding of why the change is happening.
- Clarify and reinforce new priorities, so they know what will be expected of them.
- Give your people as much control as possible over the change. Providing the opportunity for employees to be involved in the change process paves the way for their engagement and ownership.
- Give them the practical support they need to make the change successfully. For example, if they will need new skills, make sure they get the necessary skills training.
This approach takes traditional, management-driven, top-down change and turns it into a more sustainable employee-owned change initiative.
Navigating unexpected change
When COVID-19 landed in South Africa in March 2020, the need for radical organisational change became inescapable. Mandated lockdowns led to the need for offices and factories to close or adopt shift work, and for employees who could to work remotely. Many businesses were forced to pivot their operations almost overnight in order to survive.
COVID-19 has led to changes that include:
- Working from home
- A distorted sense of time
- Changes in the way we exercise and work out
- Renewed gratitude for essential workers
- A never-ending list of pandemic-fuelled shortages
- All of the considerations of juggling work and parenthood
- A spotlight on inequality
- Remote learning
- A renewed connection with nature
- Erosion of gender equality – a decimation in the number of women at work
- A mental health crisis
- A diminished tertiary education experience for our students
- COVID-19 as a “class-marker” that emphasises remote workers versus in-person workers and among remote workers those with Internet access and those without.
Benefitting from crises brought by unexpected change as leaders
An article published in Harvard Business Review on 5 May 2021, titled How Coaching Can Help You Move from Crisis Management to Crisis Leadership, identifies how “one resource in particular, coaching, can change the process of crisis management into constructive crisis leadership; into an approach that is both proactive and powerful.” The article highlights that while times of crisis lead to times of chaos. Chaos, need not be what leaders might think of as fundamentally negative. In fact, through being coached in developing greater resilience and soft skills that include clear communication, calm and empathy, weathering chaos can lead to innovation, opportunities, and course corrections in the hands of management who are skilled in the art of crisis leadership. Leaders who recognise how chaos can be harnessed to overhaul and improve the rules come through the other side of crises stronger and with greater employee, customer, and community loyalty than they had before.
Three tools for supporting employees through unexpected change
When people experience a big change they need support to help make it through to the other side. Developmental psychology suggests that transitional objects, whether they take the form of a physical item, such as a security blanket, or something abstract, like a routine, habit, or action, provide the necessary grounding to help people navigate uncertainty. Choice is one such transitional object. Research shows that change is more palatable to people if they feel like they are an active participant in making decisions throughout the change. In organisations that are navigating the pandemic, being granted a choice could be demonstrated through giving employees a choice of where and how to work.
- Connection to a purpose or mission
Western culture is more about individualism than collectivism. However, the massive changes brought about by COVID-19 have reminded communities such as organisations that there is great power in working together and staying connected; particularly when participants have a connection to something shared like a mission, purpose, or guiding star. This allows a group of people to focus on something bigger than the temporary pain brought about by transition and uncertainty, which can be particularly powerful in the workplace.
- Establish a bridge
COVID-19 required people to change the way they accomplish many everyday things – from doing our jobs to seeking medical care, educating our children and grocery shopping. Technology platforms “stepped in” to help bridge the gap, facilitating virtual education, Zoom meetings and food-delivery services that support our ability to re-imagine “normal” daily life – from the home office to the classroom to stocking the pantry. Establishing a bridge in the workplace does not only refer to technology. There are other bridges, innovations that can help employees as a conduit in recreating the way they accomplish tasks and responsibilities in a new way.
As a leader, when your employees are able to resume work in their physical office space (or not) and begin to find their way in navigating the changing normal, ask yourself these three questions: Where can I give my employees choice? How can I instil purpose into everyday activities and what innovations, or technologies, can serve as a bridge to get us where we are headed?