Leading Change: Working with Emotional Issues

Consultant Maureen McGuire kicked off her presentation with the observation that while 30 years ago the goal of an organization was stability, most managers now accept change as constant and inevitable, and their major concern is weathering that change smoothly. She took the audience through the three phases of transitions: an ending of what was, a “neutral zone” that is both difficult and creative, and a beginning of the new condition. Each stage has both predictable stressors and unexpected obstacles, and it is therefore necessary to pause periodically to reassess and reorient all participants involved in the process.

In the first stage, ending, it is important to recognize the fact that people have suffered legitimate losses and not move too quickly into a “pick up the pieces and move on” phase. Emotions may run high following a shock, but with sufficient time for grieving and sufficient attention to the realities of the situation – which includes separating fact from fear and avoiding the temptation to diminish the contributions of the old order – the organization will be better equipped to move forward.

The somewhat chaotic “neutral zone” that comes next is a time in which projects are particularly vulnerable to veering off track if they are not managed carefully. McGuire described a “miserable middle” just past the halfway point of a project during which energy and enthusiasm are likely to flag, and the workshop participants brainstormed various ways to push through this diminished momentum. Suggestions included revisiting the original reasons for buy-in and the advantages expected from completion; reevaluating progress in light of new information and new perspectives; bringing in a third party to help build consensus; switching roles; and holding meetings offsite to help people break out of habitual thought patterns.

Beginnings are also stressful, even when changes are positive. Most people are resistant to change to some extent, whether it is because they feel threatened by the amount and complexity of the work, because they feel left out of the decision-making process or have little trust in decision-makers, because they fear loss of status or role, or simply because they are mired in a comfortable inertia. McGuire stressed the importance of giving people work that they know how to do and believe is important, supplying them with the tools and authority to do that work, and recognizing their contributions to the group effort.

Recommended Reading: Managing Transitions by William Bridges.

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