How Leaders Can Handle the Pain of Change

The Pain of Change

You’ve seen it happen.  You may have even experienced it yourself.  The email comes out and some change is announced.  People didn’t know, don’t agree and aren’t happy. 

Maybe it will change their job – but how?

Reacting to Change

Very quickly, the people in an organization can go from positive and committed to actively disengaged.  Change will fail if it is executed by disengaged people who are going through the motions to collect a paycheck.

Leaders must connect with people and communicate through the pain of change to drive commitment.

Connect Through the Pain of Change

7 Questions Every Leader Must Answer

Do you want to be ready to properly handle the pain of change at your organization?

If so, here are the questions you must answer to be successful:

1. “Where are we going?”

According to John Kotter:

“Most companies under communicate their visions for change by at least a factor of 10. A single memo announcing a big new change is never enough, nor is even a series of speeches by the CEO and the executive team.”

As a leader, you must paint the picture of where this change is going to take your organization.  Make it vivid and compelling.  Next, tie your change initiative to organizational vision and values so that all it makes sense for the people you lead.

You will see higher levels of commitment to your change and the organization once people know where you want to take them.

2. “Who is supposed to change?”

Think about your team and anyone else impacted by the change.  Where are they?  Consider time zones, languages and cultural preferences. Many people will skip your meeting if it is at 3:00 AM local time.  Or they will resent you.

You may need to offer multiple sessions, have content translated into different languages or identify someone how can help you localize your content to make it relevant to global participants.

Even if your change isn’t global, it is critical to consider the audience.

Operations areas, like call centers, will have special scheduling needs.  IT will have different questions than HR.

3. “What do they need to hear?”

Don’t just show up with a slick PowerPoint that tells everyone how your change is the top priority for the organization.  Think about what people need to know to support your change.  Define those critical messages in advance.

Focus on these elements:

  • Why there is an urgent need for change
  • Potential risks in the external environment if the change is not successful
  • An overview of the scope and timing of the change
  • The importance of the project to achieving the overall company’s vision
  • A high-level overview of the change
  • Executive Leadership’s active support for the change

Be consistent!  Inconsistent communication makes all communication unreliable.  Ensure that the communication around different initiatives has a consistent set of underlying messages.

This type of relevant, consistent communication builds the credibility of your change effort and boosts employee engagement.

4. “How will I reach out to them?”

Email is almost everyone’s go-to form of communication.

  • But how often to you read every email you get in the course of the day?  Be creative. 
  • Does your organization or department have a news letter?  Submit an article. 
  • Does your CEO have a meeting of the extended leadership team?  Ask if your change can be on the agenda.

You can also look outside of existing communication options.  For a complex change, you might consider setting up a page on the company  intranet.  Perhaps you could use your voicemail system to send a general broadcast email?

Could you print posters that give people information about your change?   It is almost impossible to over communicate.

A good goal is to repeat key messages 7 times in 7 ways.

5. “How will I help them through the change?”

The best way to keep your organization productive and engaged during changes is to identify and address their concerns about the change.  Leaders must admit that apprehension and concerns exist and then explain how the change will affect people personally.

This is particularly true when the change will result in changes to an employees work location, pay or responsibilities. People will also be concerned about how they will be successful in the company after the change.

Your communication should provide information about the resources available to help them navigate the change (for example, training).

People who feel like they are doomed to fail will be looking for a new job.  Let them know you will help them succeed.

6. “How will I hear what they have to say?”  

Focus on creating dialogue with the people you are expecting to change.  Ask how they feel about the change and solicit suggestions designed to make your change more effective.

I worked with a CEO who implemented an “Ask Us Anything” mailbox during a period of change.  People asked, leaders answered and  the Q&A became a living document on the company Intranet.

The important concept is to develop a conversation and allow the people who are being asked to change to have input into the change.

This is a key driver of engagement and if you skip this step, you will face increased resistance and lowered commitment.

7. “How will we celebrate our success?”

Don’t underestimate the power of recognition in keeping employees engaged during change.

In fact, the Ken Blanchard Company conducted a survey that included 25,000 c-level and mid-level managers, and frontline employees from companies around the world.  This survey found recognition to be one of the 8 factors that drive employee engagement – what they call Workplace Passion.

And this is never more true than in times of change.

When you are asking people to leave their comfort zone and change, it is critical to provide genuine appreciation and recognition.

A Plan to Lead

Answering these questions should help you develop a plan to lead your people through change.  Don’t forget the most important tool at your disposal to keep people actively engaged during change.  You! 

“When it comes to sending a message throughout the organization, nothing communicates more clearly than what leaders do.”

Kouses and Posner spell this out in their book,  The Leadership Challenge.  If you are disengaged, your team will follow.  Leading by example is never more important than in times of change.

Is your organization faced with change?  Do you have a plan to maintain employee engagement during the change?  Are you celebrating your success? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Melissa Lanier
Melissa Lanier leads Global Talent Management for an S&P SmallCap 600 Firm
She is driven to build High Performing Cultures Aligned to Strategy
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8 responses to “How Leaders Can Handle the Pain of Change

  1. Excellent article, Melissa! It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that employees intuitively know “why” change is necessary, so finding multiple ways to communicate that is essential. E-mail has become overused and cluttered as a medium; it may be great for sharing facts and information, but it is very poor for fostering true understanding.


    • I strongly agree that email is overused. Sometimes we really need to take the time to have a conversation. Thanks for starting off the discussion!


  2. Great questions to ask. If you’re the one implementing the change, chances are you’ve been thinking/planning it for a while. You may assume aspects that the average person in the business still needs to hear.


    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I find that business people deal with changes from all sides and they are almost always underprepared. As companies run leaner, it seems like there are fewer resources to spend on preparing for change. Are you seeing the same thing?


  3. Melissa,
    Thanks for your clear articulation of what a leader can do to lead change–very practical. I didn’t realize that a factor of 10 is the reality. I’ll use that quote by Kotter! Jeni


  4. Change is often difficult. This information is a great guide to help be more prepared to handle what could be a huge unknown.


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