Five Steps to Effectively Lead Change

Employers have a traditionally dysfunctional relationship with leading and managing change. They rank it high in importance but low — even at the very bottom — of their actual priority list, according to Brandon Hall Group’s annual HCM Outlook studies. 

The upheaval resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic shift. Now, as organizations grapple with the future of work, change management ranks number-one on the human capital management priority list. And leading change is considered the most important competency for leaders to improve. 

Change is not a single thing. Every change an organization makes, from improving employees’ work experience to reimagining recruitment, career development and performance management and everything in between, is different and requires nuanced leadership and management. As organizations determine their future-of-work priorities, the scope of change that leaders will have to manage can be overwhelming. 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid evolution of work, change management in all areas of human capital management increased significantly since 2020, according to Brandon Hall Group research. 

If organizations don’t lead and manage change effectively, it will have a negative impact on the business.

A change initiative — however large or small — must be led and communicated carefully, inclusively and consistently. 

Change leadership is successful when the people involved — leaders and frontline teams — care about what they do. They understand the purpose of the change and how it connects to the mission, vision and values of an organization. 

Employees buy into change when leaders honor their thoughts and feelings based on their closeness to the work and customers. But when change is led and managed without empathy and inclusion, the journey can be rocky, expensive and detrimental to organizational culture. 

Change leadership and management are complex. There are many comprehensive change models to study and replicate but successful change starts with a high-level understanding of all the dynamics that go into change. 

Most organizations start change initiatives without a strong idea of the impact on employees and the organization. And even when that occurs, communication about the change is not effectively cascaded across the enterprise and leaders fail to make employees part of the change. 

When organizations undertake a change initiative, leaders must answer fundamental questions that will enable them to communicate and socialize the change with their teams, whether it is a small department, a large function, a business unit or the entire organization. They include: 

  • What is the change?
  • Why are we doing it? 
  • How are we doing it? 
  • How are we communicating it? 
  • How will we know we have succeeded? 

Here are five high-level strategies leaders can take to successfully drive and manage change. No matter the scope of change, the same approach should be followed. 

Ensure you fully understand the business case for change. 

  • Be able to explain it in a simple “elevator” pitch. 
  • Have a core message for communication to everyone. 
  • Be able to describe what success will look like. 

Assess the readiness for change. 

  • Understand where in your organization or on your team you will get support. Who specifically? 
  • Understand where in your organization or on your team you will get resistance. Who specifically?
  • Clearly understand the reasons for support and resistance. 
  • Understand how you can leverage the support to drive acceptance of the change. 
  • Have clear ideas on how to isolate the resistance. 

Set the tone. 

  • Determine how you as a leader can signal and demonstrate a commitment to the change. 
  • Determine new behaviors and habits you can model to support the change before asking others to do so. 
  • Determine ways you can gain initial momentum or “wins” and how to communicate them. 
  • Set progress goals and track them. 

Socialize the change. 

  • Leadership teams should have a detailed communication plan in place about the change to socialize it as widely as needed. 
  • Take a layered approach; a single communication blitz won’t get it done. 
  • Use a variety of modalities ranging from email to social media, video, in-person and virtual town hall meetings, chatbots, small discussion groups, etc. Anticipate the different ways your stakeholders like to consume information and cater to them. 
  • If appropriate, assemble teams to spearhead various parts of the project and actively involve them. 
  • Involve supporters to reinforce the message and “campaign” for the change. 

Be agile. 

  • Enable individuals and groups to present ideas, express concerns and provide feedback as the initiative progresses. Nothing should be static. 
  • Keep evolving your communication process as needed. 
  • Have a plan for handling setbacks. 
  • Celebrate meaningful milestones and results.

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