By Laurie Cure, PhD, MBA

Decades (perhaps centuries) of academic research has gone into developing strategies for effectively managing change in the organizational environment. Yet, “getting through” changes and transition is always surprisingly difficult.

The last six months has tested every one of our teachings around change. Business guidelines are changing rapidly, our workforce has entered into more virtual environments, parents (and hence employees) are balancing changing structures in their home lives, like schooling, and stability is consistently challenged.

“If transition isn’t painful then you aren’t making progress.”
~ Anonymous

One of the primary lessons of change and transition is the importance of creating a vision for the future, but with the current situation, leaders are needing to manage change and transition without a clear idea of what tomorrow holds. A picture of the future is evermore difficult and the need for skills in leading through ambiguity is critical. Complicating matters further is that employees are operating from very different places along the continuum of change.

In considering how to manage behavioral change, the Transtheoretical Model offers some insights. It provides six stages individuals move through as they navigate transition and changes in their lives. As you consider these stages, assess where you are and where others in your sphere of influence sit on various issues.

  1. Precontemplation – People do not intend to take action in the foreseeable future (within the next 6 months). People are often unaware or not informed about how behavior is problematic or produces negative consequences. People in this stage often underestimate the pros of changing behavior and place too much emphasis on the cons of changing behavior. People can feel highly demoralized or unmotivated to change at this point.
  2. Contemplation – People are intending to start the new behavior in the foreseeable future (defined as within the next 6 months) and they are recognizing that their behavior may be problematic. They are more thoughtful and practical in assessing the pros and cons of changing their behavior. Even with this recognition, people may still feel ambivalent toward changing their behavior.
  3. Preparation (Determination) – In this stage, people are ready to take action within the next 30 days. People start to take small steps toward the behavior change, and they believe changing their behavior can lead to a more desirable result.
  4. Action – In this stage, people have recently changed their behavior and intend to keep moving forward with that behavior change. People may exhibit this by modifying their problem behavior or acquiring new behaviors.
  5. Maintenance – People have sustained their behavior change for a while (defined as more than 6 months) and intend to maintain the behavior change going forward. People in this stage work to prevent relapse to earlier stages.
  6. Sustain – Finally, people have no desire to return to their old behaviors and are sure they will not relapse.  

As we consider our most recent challenges (i.e., mask wearing in the workplace, moving to virtual work environments, in person versus remote learning), people are certainly operating from many of the stages above. How we make decisions, what behaviors we embrace, and how effectively we psychologically adapt to changes in our environment are contingent upon how successful we, as leaders, are in assisting others in navigating these stages. In addition, the more agency or control individuals perceive over their choices in the change, the more rapidly they move to embrace and sustain a new behavior.

To that point, here are five tips for leaders to consider as they navigate change without a clear picture.

  1. Get the facts and share those. Assist employees with understanding the pros and cons of engaging in a new behavior or a new way of thinking. This assists in ensuring individuals understand the consequences of their choices and current behavior. It also allows them to see what the differences might look like if they shift.
  2. Celebrate small wins. As individuals start to see success from behavior changes, be sure to provide affirmations and feedback about the changing results.
  3. Watch for the “feelings”- one leader recently told me leadership would be easier if it were not for managing people. Our emotional side is strong and leaders must recognize, call out and explore these aspects, even when it is uncomfortable. Ask people what they are feeling? What do they need right now? How can you best support them?
  4. Keep and define boundaries- we operate more effectively when we have parameters to operate within. You can provide these, or they can be co-created with your team members.
  5. Develop some consistency- Right now, it feels like the sand is constantly shifting under our feet. We might feel some sense of consistency one day that changes the next. Even when there is a great degree of inconsistency with change, leaders need to offer enough structure so team members can have a plan for the future.

Join the conversation. Let us know how we can assist you in navigating the tremendous and rapid change we are experiencing now.