How to set change leaders and team members up for success in the face of organizational changes big or small

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Stratford Group. 

Every month, our People & Culture Team gets together (virtually) to discuss recurring issues that we are tackling or common themes we are seeing amongst our clients. The purpose of these sessions is to create an opportunity for deeper discussion, get a sense of our clients’ collective pain points, and crowdsource different perspectives for how best to navigate them.

This week, I was charged with facilitating one of the discussion points and landed on the topic of change management. This was after a conversation with a senior leader who expressed frustration about a change management implementation that was going less than ideally.

The question I posed was, “How do you best prepare your leaders and organization and what happens if you get to a point in your deployment efforts where concerns raised look like they aren’t going to be resolved positively?”

It’s no surprise that many organizations are dealing with some form of organizational upheaval; with the pandemic, “pivot” became the buzz word of 2020 and remains in the collective vocabulary two and a half years in. But pandemic or not, there will always be a time when an organization must implement change and having a proper strategy in place will impact the degree of success.

For most, change is uncomfortable, so it stands to reason that some level of resistance is inevitable when implementing anything from a new business model, an organization structure, or even a new procedure…

In our experience, a key is to look at things from both the perspective of the leaders taking charge of the change (change leaders) and from the team members who will live with it.

Here are some proactive tips we explored that will help mitigate resistance across various levels of your organization so that this resistance does not create any unnecessary roadblocks to successful change.

  1. Assess

Be aware. Possibly the highest impact item on this list and the one that should be undertaken first is a Change Readiness Assessment. These assessments are great at taking the temperature at any given moment to give you an idea of where both the leadership team and team members are regarding the proposed changes. Doing this at the outset also gives you a baseline to measure progress toward a successful implementation.

For change leaders, these assessments can raise potential red flags and put them on the record so that the proper resources can be prepared in advance. Change Readiness Assessment outcomes enable change leaders to anticipate the level of resistance, identify potential risks, and ultimately, to diminish disruption.

For team members, these assessments provide the opportunity to voice frustrations or concerns in a proactive and constructive manner. Facilitating an assessment can often lend itself to receptiveness and support empowerment.

It is a good idea to do an assessment more than once, especially if the scope of the project is large, to validate what is working and what isn’t, and whether everything is proceeding as intended. This segues nicely into the next item on our list…

  1. Calibrate

Be flexible. This applies to both change leaders and team members. Any organizational change project is going to be fluid and as a result, the change management strategy that's attached also needs to be somewhat fluid.

What you thought would have an impact at the beginning might change over time as information is gathered and adoption starts. Maybe a key leader has left the project, or the resources available have changed.

However, recalibrating doesn’t mean redesigning the entire change strategy. Sometimes, the degree of fluidity is limited, and your flexibility is simply providing more time to acclimate to the change. And that’s okay!

Make accommodations where you can, based on what makes sense for the project. If change leaders can show flexibility, the team will likely be more flexible as well.

  1. Communicate

Be consistent. Messaging is essential for buy-in, and it is essential for change leaders to make sure your leadership team is aligned and that they feel supported. Nothing has the potential to derail your success faster than misinformation and weak communication.

Nobody wants to be perceived as the “bad guy” but not taking ownership of the change at a leadership level can be detrimental to the success of implementation. Change leaders need to support your leadership team by providing them with communication tools and encourage them to take ownership of the changes. We have found tools like a “Communication Coach” document provide clear and concise messages that drive consistency.

It is important to have the leadership team speak from a place of experience and genuine endorsement for the change. However, it would not be unwise to spend time with them to prepare for their presentation and follow up after the fact to do a post-mortem to discuss how to address any gaps in the messaging they delivered - and how to move forward.

When communicating with your team members, we urge you to find the balance between over-communicating and under-communicating. Too much and you run the risk of adding noise and not value to the conversation; under communicate and employees tend to fill the gaps themselves, saddling yourself with twice as much work to break the cycle of misinformation.

Listen and then see point #2 above. Once you have the communication lines open, use these opportunities to educate…

  1. Educate

Know your audience. Change leaders must educate the leadership team as to where the largest “voice” of dissent is coming from for the change. This just may inform the overall strategy. Is the voice found in senior leadership, middle management, specific teams, or areas of the business? Change management tactics will flex depending on who the target audience is, the size of the audience, and their degree of resistance.

Team members are much more likely to support a change management strategy when there is solid reasoning behind any decision. What is the rationale behind these changes and the intended impact/result? You may not get to a point where everyone is fully comfortable, but the rationale needs to be clear about why you are moving forward with this change.

  1. Champion

Mark the occasion. While a change project is underway, change leaders can help team members to recognize and acknowledge the end of one way of working and the beginning of another. These milestones present an opportunity for change leaders to be creative and really highlight the benefits that come as a result of the move from one way of doing things to another.

A metaphoric line in the sand is a way to say, ‘this process got us to this point successfully and now the new process will help us continue to move forward.’ It may be individual, or team-based or even organization-wide but it can be a helpful approach to provide team members with reinforcement of the needed mindset.

We have found another great way to bridge the gap between change leaders and team members is to install change ambassadors across the organization. Change ambassadors aren’t typically in leadership or management roles but are active and respected colleagues who can lead the change from their own place.

Ambassadors can be equipped to reinforce the key messages needed for successful change and provide an outlet where team members can provide open and direct feedback, who then in turn can support change leaders who have the ability to flex or accommodate with evolved change tactics.

Finally remember it’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. Not every organizational change will require a large scope change management strategy, but we suggest that there should be a bit of each of the components above to better enable every change to be implemented with success.

If you don’t know where to start, the success of any change management strategy invariably comes down to the organization leadership. There is inevitably a point in all change management implementations where things get a little turbulent and how the workforce navigates that stormy weather often comes down to the leadership team. All efforts made to ensure that they are fully on board, to promote and support the change, will translate to better success with the team members.

About Dean: As part of Stratford's People & Culture team, Dean brings more than 20 years of experience and a deep expertise in leadership development, organizational development and design, project management, process mapping, and best-practice benchmarking activities. With an extensive background in organization development and effectiveness, performance consulting and process improvement, Dean compliments his HR background with strong process management and competency-based project experience.  Dean’s particular areas of expertise include:

  • Leadership development strategy and program development
  • Instructional design and facilitation; talent management program design and implementation
  • Process design and project management
  • Driving pragmatic, metrics-driven solutions