Leadership in Times of Change

It is vital for any leader to be able to manage the process of change. Change is all around us. The world never stays still, so people and organisations need to adapt accordingly. How we approach change and how successful we are at dealing with it varies. It is something which requires careful management in the workplace.

Organisations need to adapt to survive. Minor changes take place in all firms on a regular basis, with little disruption. However, from time to time, internal or external factors may result in larger, more profound, change. Such external factors may be political, economic, social, environmental, technological, legal or regulatory. For example, the implementation of the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SM&CR), with the regulator’s focus on organisational culture, is likely to serve as a driver of cultural change within organisations.

Change should not be feared. It can be a refreshing process, bringing opportunity, new perspectives, progress, greater efficiency and new ways of doing things. In theory, change is something to be embraced. However, when faced with change that affects them on a personal or organisational level, individuals may treat it with suspicion and scepticism. For instance, if faced with organisational change, perhaps involving restructuring, the adoption of new technologies, or the implementation of different working practices, those who are comfortable with the status quo may feel threatened.

Change is often met with resistance. This is generally because of the uncertainty it generates or because the change threatens individuals in some way. It is too simplistic to dismiss this by saying ‘people just don’t like change’. There is usually a reason, whether it is rational or irrational. Even if there are no easy answers, people’s fears and concerns need to be addressed.

Managing and implementing change is no easy task. It can be stressful both for managers and the people affected. Change management has a high risk of failure and, if not handled appropriately, can make a manager unpopular. When managing change, leaders have the difficult job of anticipating the impact it will have on the organisation, its culture and processes, and the individuals concerned.

If change is rushed or poorly managed, the results can be disastrous. The relationship between employer and employee can be sorely tested. Negative reactions, distinguished by distrust and suspicion, can have an enduring and toxic impact.

Good communication is crucial. This can involve keeping everyone informed through regular internal communication systems (e.g. staff email, intranet or team meetings); having meetings with those directly affected; consulting stakeholders within the decision-making process; and encouraging creative-problem solving among employees.

A leader should be strong and provide a clear vision, outlining why change is needed and engaging with the staff in a working culture of openness and trust. A leader should make people aware of their individual role in the delivery of the vision.

Managers need to be sensitive to the emotional consequences of change. Excellent interpersonal skills, particularly empathy, need to be demonstrated during what may be a very difficult time for some people.

When change is on the horizon, it is likely that rumours (whether true, partly true or just pure speculation) will spread among the staff. If rumours are allowed to spread, it is likely that anxiety, stress and disillusionment will result. In the interests of honesty and openness, it is therefore wise for managers to provide staff with an official statement on the proposed changes as soon as possible.

Senior managers should be a visible presence and be prepared to speak with teams or individuals affected by the change in order to offer advice or reassurance. Line Managers should also be appropriately briefed. Management should be sure to provide support, relevant retraining and motivation to help deliver change. Also, by monitoring and obtaining feedback on the change process, managers will be in a strong position to deal with problems as they emerge.

Whenever change is implemented, it is helpful to have a few ‘quick wins’. Key successes and milestones should be celebrated as a team to improve morale and maintain enthusiasm. The ultimate goal is sustaining the change and making it work. This involves incorporating it into their working practices, creating new ways of doing things and resisting attempts to fall back into old habits.

Change is rarely easy but with the right vision, good communication and persistence, it is possible to make lasting improvements in an organisation.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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