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Leading through change: how to avoid the most common pitfalls

What can you do if you’re a leader and your business is going through a period of change? The first thing to acknowledge is that you’re not alone, everyone is going through change in different ways, at different times. The second thing to do is to make a plan and take action.

And this is where so many organisations and leaders fall down. So often, watching change unfold is like witnessing a car-crash in slow motion. Everyone is so focused on fighting fires and business as usual, that they deprioritise planning, navigating and most importantly communicating change. And if they do have a plan in place, it’s rarely, if ever, enough.

Although this article won’t give you all the answers, my hope is that it will give you some practical steps that you can take in order to provide reassurance, confidence and ultimately direction to the people around you. So that you can relax and get back to the job at hand.

Yes, it’s the ‘unprecedented’ word again…

It’s said that the world has changed more in the last decade than in the previous century – witness the rise of technologies such as smartphones, social media, artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing, robotics, not to mention the most recently hyped impact of Chat GPT.

Mind-blowingly, the amount of data in the world is doubling every two years, which makes it harder than ever to identify what information to trust.[1]

There have also been massive shifts in our societal structure which have positively affected how we relate to one another, driven by movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Whether change is percieved as positive or not, the sheer volume can make many people feel unsettled, which is nothing new. To quote the 1961 musical: “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Although helping people navigate change is a quintessential part of leadership, many leaders I work with are finding the pace and sheer weight of it more overwhelming than ever. Whether in 121 coaching sessions or workshops, I’ve witnessed so many different emotions, as leaders desperately try to balance demands of the day job with predicting and preparing for the future. Alongside the excitement, there are feelings of apathy, paralysis, cynicism and powerlessness, where people wonder why they should bother and what role they have the right to play.  

The good news is, you don’t need to be a change expert or invest millions in management consultancy to handle this. Ultimately, it’s about creating a simple, actionable plan, and involving people every step of the way.

Let’s start by acknowledging what happens to people during change

You’re probably familiar with the Kübler Ross Change Curve Model, which has a rightful place in most leadership development programmes. It depicts seven stages we all go through during change: shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiment, decision and integration. If you think about the profound changes you’ve been through in your personal and professional life, you’ll probably recognise this rollercoaster yourself.

Simply knowing that this is completely normal can be reassuring in itself and so I recommend you bring ‘curve conversations’ into everyday interactions with your teams and colleagues. There’s advice on what to say to people at different stages of the curve later on in this article.

Then, put yourself first

You might be surprised by this one: “The only thing I care about is my team” is a statement I often hear from committed leaders.

True leadership means setting an empowering example. People will be looking to you for direction and guidance. Which makes it essential that you look after yourself. This isn’t selfish, it’s self-full. If you’re falling apart, losing control, taking your emotions out on others or disengaging altogether, you will be inviting everyone around you to do the same thing.

To get yourself in the best possible mindset, remember, you always have the power to choose your attitude in any given circumstance. As you look at the change, ask yourself:

  • How can I best interpret this situation?
    • What can I learn from it?
      • How can I achieve the best outcome, for me and others?

        Alongside paying attention to your mental attitude, think about your physical health. I often see leaders working longer hours, sleeping less, deprioritising exercise, eating more or less than usual and reaching for the booze to switch it all off. So think of your body not necessarily as a temple, but as an engine which will get you to where you need to be. An engine which needs the right fuel and downtime to function at its best. When I’ve navigated difficult times, I’ve found the most grounding thing I can do is spend time in nature, to remind myself that the world is still turning, despite all the turbulence going on.

        As you think about your role as a leader, imagine you’re a tree. Your roots keep you grounded, your trunk sways with the wind rather than resisting, and your branches shelter those beneath you.

        Communicating change 

        This is what leaders and organisations often get the most wrong because they simply don’t do enough of it. Here are some key points to bear in mind: 

        • Most people find change scary and will resist what you say, however articulate you are and however upbeat you make it
          • People can smell a rat a mile off. Integrity is key. There will be things you can say and things you can’t say, things you want to say that you can’t and things you have to say that you don’t want to. Regardless, you will have to say them, so spend time making peace with the points you’re there to deliver and know your own mind before convincing others
            • What you say and how you say it can be the difference between success and failure. Flexibility is key, so be consistent in your messaging while adapting your style to suit the situation and your audience’s learning style
              • It’s never one and done. When I worked in comms, we used to say it takes seven messages, communicated in seven different ways for a point to land, and this is all the more important during change. To do this, plan out multiple communication touchpoints and repeat yourself regularly
                • Creating an environment where people can feel respected and heard is essential. Psychological safety is a term that’s talked about a lot, but it’s not often clear what it is or how to make it happen. If you want people to open up, it’s important for you to do the same. Be prepared to share your vulnerabilities but not to the point that people lose faith in your ability to hold it together. I talk about selective vulnerability, where you identify points you’re happy to be ‘wobbly’ about and those where you’re steady as a rock.

                “Spend time making peace with the points you’re there to deliver and know your own mind before convincing others”

                Using your voice

                It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it

                Change can be seen as negative or positive. For example, you might have to announce redundancies or invite people onto a challenging new project. Depending who you are and your circumstances, this could be seen as good or bad news.

                Either way, it’s important to communicate following my 3 Cs – clarity, consistency and calmness, whether it’s just you sharing the change or you’re one of many change communicators.

                • Clarity: Identify your number one message and ensure it’s simple and clear. Explain why the change is needed (from the listener’s point of view). Tell them what’s entailed, with key facts and figures. Explain the steps involved, and mention the risks and benefits. Share the vision by shining a light on the interests that unite everyone.
                  • Consistency: Repeat your core messages across every communication and over all channels, whether online or offline, both in visuals and in writing.
                    • Calmness: Respond promptly to the situation as it evolves and answer any questions asap. Be honest and transparent. Speak with authenticity and sincerity, and express appropriate emotion. Be congruent with your body language and tone. In short, use your gravitas!

                      Supporting people through change

                      As a leader, people will be looking to you for certainty, reassurance and direction. You’ll have to show them flexibility, stability, resilience and care. Rather than imposing your own perspective, meet people where they’re at. They’ll all be at different stages of the change curve at different times, so you’ll need to flex your communication style accordingly.

                      • While they’re in shock, provide reassurance by giving simple messaging
                        • If they’re in denial, stay calm and repeat your core messages
                          • If they’re feeling frustrated, allow them to vent and ensure they feel heard
                            • When they are depressed, introduce messages of hope and offer simple steps forward
                              • If they are in the experimentation phase, start to involve them and celebrate their wins
                                • Once they reach the decision phase, involve them in more of your plans and share more detail
                                  • Finally, when they’re at the integration phase, reflect on successes and learnings and focus on future implementation

                                    What next?

                                    Antoinette partners with organisations to prepare their leaders for change in various ways and has created a proprietary methodology that maps out a pathway for strategic change communication.

                                    • To reach a large audience, book her as a keynote speaker
                                    • To discuss how to strategically engage your leaders through change, book a call to discuss her bespoke consultancy
                                    • For guidance on leading with gravitas through change and transformation, read Antoinette’s book Leading With Gravitas


                                        Antoinette Dale Henderson

                                        The Gravitas Coach

                                        Antoinette is an executive coach, keynote speaker and two-time author with over 25 years’ experience in leadership communications, including 16 years holding senior positions in some of the world’s top PR agencies.

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                                        To discuss how Antoinette and her team can accelerate your success, book a call now!

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