Leading Your People through Difficult Change

June 14, 2017

Having a hard time helping people embrace change?  You’ll find it immeasurably easier to help them if you know what stage they’re in.

Let me illustrate.  Kathleen Kelley, the owner of a small Manhattan bookstore, suddenly finds her very survival threatened by the arrival of a mega-discount bookstore. The impact on her business is dramatic and evident (to everyone except her). Despite her vanishing clientele and emptying coffers, she blithely dismisses this massively unequal competition as “Nothing to do with us.  It’s big, overstocked, impersonal, and full of ignorant sales people.”  She’s in denial—the first stage—denying not its presence but its impact.

Slowly, however, it becomes clear even to her that the change is real and far from benign. She decides to fight back, and enlists her boyfriend, a columnist, to write a column in defense of her bookstore.  She gets the TV news station involved and mobilizes a picket line.  She has moved to the second stage, resistance.

But it doesn’t work. The downward spiral of her business continues to its dismal conclusion.  “People are always telling you that change is a good thing,” she muses as she closes up the bookstore for the last time. “But all they are really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all, has happened . . . I’m heart-broken. I feel as if part of me has died.  And no one can ever make it right.”  Everything looks very bleak.  She’s in depressionthe third stage.

New doors, however, open up: she starts writing a children’s book, and she’s offered a job as a children’s book editor.  In this exploration (the fourth stage), there is still some confusion and the sense of loss hasn’t been eradicated, but there is now a greater sense of hope and even excitement.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because you have seen the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” The final denouement—stage five—is her commitment to the new reality, which is far better than the reality she lost.

But she needed time to get there. And that’s where many of us as leaders have a hard time: giving people time to process change. Many leaders, who themselves wrestled through the five stages, expect their people to move straight to commitment without giving them the time to move through the five stages, as they have.  They get discouraged by the resistance and the depression, and mistakenly see it as permanent.  Exploration is seen as a threat, not the healthy process of taking ownership.

For most people, change is painful.  But if you as their leader understand the stages they go through, you will exercise the right kind of patience, ask the right kinds of questions, and provide the right kind of leadership as they process the change—and you’ll do it all without compromising the change.  Great leaders help their people understand that change, after all, can work out for the best ... and not just on the big screen.


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