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Managing Through Disruptive Change

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What you already know about managing change that can see you and your team through

The anxiety is palpable during your team meeting and in your one-on-one conversations. And it’s not just your team. You’re uncertain too and don’t have all answers for the months ahead as we adjust to working in the new normal.

If you’re doubting your ability to lead your team through these waves of disruptive change, take heart. Most likely you already have many of the leadership skills and experience you need today to help support your team members through the uncertainty of working in our COVID-19 world. Not convinced? Read on to learn how you can tap into your existing people leader abilities and the most important thing you can do for your team during times of transition.

Understanding how we transition through change

Often when you’re stuck in the middle of seismic change, you have a clear sense of how it was before but only a blurry view of what’s ahead. In change management, we call this time between the old reality and a new beginning: The Neutral Zone.

Consultant William Bridges first used this phrase to explain how people transition through change. His Bridges Transition model explains the three distinct stages we individually move through in times of change:

  1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
  2. The Neutral Zone
  3. The New Beginning

Getting unstuck in the Neutral Zone

In the Neutral Zone, people going through change often feel uncertain, confused and impatient. Sound familiar? How we help our team members navigate through the Neutral Zone makes the difference between entering the New Beginning phase with a strong sense of identity and confidence or holding onto the old reality.

Navigating your team through the Neutral Zone

Over 10 years, we’ve coached hundreds of senior leaders and frontline managers as part of our Leading Change training program. Obviously, there are big differences between leading a planned organizational change and managing a team through a once-in-a lifetime pandemic. But as we explain during the training session, the same everyday leadership principles and behaviours can apply to leading through change from the old reality to a New Beginning:

From Leading Day-to-Day To Leading through Change Examples in the COVID-19 context
Creating plans to help your organization fulfill its mandate Creating plans to support the organization from current state to the unique needs of the Neutral Zone and then to future state Working with your team, create a plan for a phased back-to-the workplace and include clear expectations around any revised processes
Working with employees who may be at different capability levels to get each one to an appropriate level of performance Working with employees who are at very different places with respect to a change to help them understand the specific impacts on their role and accountabilities Hold purposeful 1:1 or team huddles to regularly gather the impacts and challenges your team is facing and create tactics to manage
Helping employees understand the goals and objectives of the organization and their role in meeting those goals Helping employees understand what’s changing and their role in navigating the change or delivering services and products differently Take time to understand your employees’ work experience during the Neutral Zone and their expectations and concerns about working onsite vs remotely in the new normal
Typically training employees when they are on-board and the coaching them to maintain performance Training employees in new processes, skills and behaviours to be successful in the Neutral Zone Prepare managers to more effectively lead remote teams, such as advanced skills in using online platforms, running effective virtual meetings, meeting customer needs in a virtual world
Conversations to coach and mentor, focused on improving performance Conversations to determine how to help employees move through change Learn techniques for holding empathetic conversations e.g. asking open ended questions, active listening

The number one thing you can do as a leader during disruptive change?

Be empathetic.

It’s a leadership truism that’s even more critical today. There’s a balance we need to find as leaders between setting the usual expectations and being empathetic to your team members’ unique circumstances. As one CEO emphasized on a recent conference call with his leadership team, our expectations on how and when employees can work may need to change. He underlined the importance of flexibility and even shared some of his personal challenges adapting to a new way of working.

There are practical actions you can take to put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Here are a few of our recommendations:

  • Give your team members time to absorb the changes. As leader, you’ve likely been briefed on any big changes, like the back-to-the-office plan or shift in priorities, in advance and with context and details. Similarly, your team may need same grace period to process the changes and voice their questions and concerns.
  • Recognize what’s changing for the employee may be different than what’s changing for you. Let’s face it. Leaders tend to be more financially secure and may have extra support as they balance their professional and personal lives. Leaders also tend to have more input and control over any workplace changes. Changes, whether big or small from your perspective, may feel more abrupt and life altering to your team.
  • Emphasize what’s not changing. In the whirlwind, it can be hard to remember just how much remains the same. Take the time to emphasize what you know is not changing as well as what is. Familiar job accountabilities or reporting relationships can be reassuring landmarks as the team members navigate change.

In this world of COVID-19 and workplace disruption, we can build trust and forge deeper personal connections with the members of our teams. The way we work may be different, but your relationships with your team and your ability to respond to the next big change may be stronger than ever.

Interested in learning more about how we’re delivering our Leading Teams through Change training virtually? Email us at or click here to download our Change Management program brochure.

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