Episode: 3 Challenges in Managing Change

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to talk about a problem every (and I do mean every) leader faces: resistance to change.

Megan: Oh man. This is a gut punch, because we’ve all been there. I know I have been there myself, and it’s hard.

Michael: Just this week you were here.

Megan: Just this week. Growth of any kind requires change, and in a business context, that change could mean your team or your structure or your product lines, marketing strategy, you name it. It’s almost like anything is fair game for change. As a leader, you can usually see beyond the change. You might even be excited about it, but generally, your team has a way harder time with it. That means when you go to roll out a big initiative or a big goal or a new vision, you get a lot of crossed arms and sideways glances, and it can be really frustrating.

Michael: It can be, and today we’re going to help with that. We’ve identified three distinct challenges you’re going to face when you introduce change in your organization, and we’re going to show you exactly how to deal with them, but first we have to bring in Dr. Larry Wilson.

Megan: Doctor.

Larry Wilson: If only.

Michael: We’ve elevated you. You used to be just “The Man.” Now you’re “Doctor.”

Megan: What’s next, Larry?

Larry: I’ll take the promotion as long as there’s a raise attached to it.

Michael: Oh, oops. You’re back to “The Man.”

Larry: Okay. So, you guys have been around long enough to introduce a lot of change over your years in business. Give me your best change fail story.

Megan: Okay. This happened toward the end of last year. We’ve been working on a new employment agreement for our team. This is really being worked on for existing employees to update the agreement they signed when we hired them. We’ve been working to clarify our official policy around people’s outside business interests, work-related things. Can they consult? Can they have a platform of some kind? What if it’s adjacent to our space? You know, all that sort of stuff, kind of intellectual property from our perspective.

I thought I had it figured out. We’d gone through several iterations. Our HR director and I had really worked through it. Then we go to the meeting to share it with the leadership team, thinking it’s just a formality, that we’re going to share it and move on to something else. It was like a full stop.

Larry: Oh boy.

Megan: There were some considerations we hadn’t thought of, things people were interested in doing that were not even on our radar that were not addressed in the policy, and it was a really tense hour conversation that I was not prepared for. I mean, I think we did okay just listening and taking the feedback and all that, but it did not go like I thought, and we really had to press “pause,” and we’re going to have to rework what we’re thinking to get alignment, because we just were not there in the way that I thought. I really misjudged that situation and kind of ran into a brick wall.

Michael: I think in those kinds of situations, too, when you look back on them you think, “Oh, I wish I had done such-and-so.” That’s really what we’re here to talk about today. How can you do it right from the get-go so you don’t have to redo it? I’ve had experiences like that in my past too, and every leader does. My memory is not quite what Megan’s is, so I have conveniently forgotten most of those things that didn’t go so well, but I promise you, I’ve had a lot of those too, and I think most leaders have.

Larry: Well, we’re talking about these challenges to managing change. There are three of them. I should point out, Michael, you talk a lot about this in your upcoming book The Vision Driven Leader and tackle some other aspects of rolling out vision. Certainly, we’re going to hit on that a little bit, but there’s more on this subject coming in the book.

Michael: There is, including things like selling up to your boss, selling across to your peers, selling down throughout the entire organization, and selling outside to customers and clients, but today is really about enrolling your team in any kind of change, whether that’s embracing a new vision for your company or just some tweak or some new benefit. It could be a variety of things, but whenever there’s a change, there is the potential for blowback, and we want to avoid that.

Larry: So today, we’re saying every leader can overcome resistance to change by addressing these three challenges. Let’s get to the first challenge: the change challenge.

Megan: The reality is that change is necessary for growth. You are not going to have a thriving organization without change, but that, of course, presents a problem. You’re going to run into this over and over again, because if you’re evolving, then your team is changing all the time, how your team is structured is probably changing all the time, what their responsibilities are, the kinds of products you offer and who’s in charge of those, your marketing strategies, your desired impact in the world or your financial impact, and of course, vision itself. These are all things that are constantly being reevaluated, and if you’re intentional, they’re moving all the time, which is potentially fraught.

Michael: The reality is not everybody likes change. I’ve learned this the hard way. I remember once I got copied on an email that wasn’t supposed to come to me from an executive assistant of one of my executives when I was at Thomas Nelson. She said, “Why does he have to keep making changes?” Then she discovered she had sent that to me, so she came up to my office and was falling on her sword. I said to her, “Look. We wouldn’t have to make changes except for one thing: we’re growing.” Growth entails change.

I think there are some personality types that naturally embrace change. I love change. I’m an Enneagram Three. I don’t know if that’s relevant or not. Enneagram Sevens tend to like it. Change for some people is exciting. In fact, I’ve been known to just get bored with things and kill them because I want some change.

Larry: Really?

Michael: Yeah. Shocking.

Megan: We would never have guessed.

Michael: I just like to mix up stuff, but not everybody likes that. Some people crave certainty and predictability. In fact, Tony Robbins has this human psychology model. He calls it the six human needs. He says the first two needs… Human beings need two things: they need certainty and they need variety. If you have only certainty, there are going to be a lot of people who are going to get bored. If you have only variety, a lot of people are going to feel like they need to throw up; they’re going to get seasick because everything is changing so much.

Megan: And I think some personality types have a greater need for one than the other.

Michael: That’s exactly right. As a leader, you have to be able to figure out how much change your organization can metabolize at one time, because it is possible to be changing so much that people lose their balance and feel like there’s no certainty, and that could be exhausting and threatening. On the other hand, if you go too slow, you may not make the moves you need to make to stay ahead in the industry, to continue to grow as a company, to continue to service your customers. So this is an area of discernment that’s more art than science, but it’s an important area for leaders to discern. How much change can I introduce without overwhelming people, because I don’t want to burn them out?

Larry: I wonder if leaders, Megan, also have a kind of default for how much resistance they can tolerate. Some leaders tend to go slower with change, maybe too slow, and then some tend to go too fast and not hear the pushback, such as you described.

Megan: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think that’s probably true. I think some leaders don’t have a high tolerance for resistance and they just steamroll. They don’t listen, and that’s their method for dealing with resistance that they don’t like. It’s a rare person who is able to sit with the resistance, as we’re going to talk about in a minute, and really make that constructive. It’s challenging. I think you’re right. The other alternative is that you just go slow, really too slow, in order to avoid the perceived conflict of resistance, which is really all about fear.

Michael: One of the things I backed into on change management was this idea that what people really need is clarity, and particularly, when you have a major organizational change you’re about to introduce, to start with, “Here’s what’s not going to change.” If you say that, people can relax and they can hear you. Some people will not be able to hear you if you just steamroll into the change.

They really can’t process that, because the narrative gets bigger in their head, like, “It’s all changing. Everything is changing. The ground under my feet is shaking.” But if you can start with, “Okay, look. Here’s what’s not going to change,” it almost creates an intellectual or emotional platform that’s stable upon which you can build that change, and it’s much easier for them to process. It doesn’t mean there won’t be some resistance, but I’ve found that that takes out a lot of resistance when you do it that way.

Megan: I think that’s true. I think people are worried about, “What does this mean for me?” Like, “Am I going to be left behind? Am I going to lose my unique contribution?” Or even… This is one that always surprises me that I’ve had people tell me. “Am I going to lose my job?” It’s amazing how scared some people are, just consistently scared that they’re going to be fired or laid off or irrelevant in some way. It’s like a basic survival instinct.

I’ve had to learn to say, “Just so we’re clear, nobody’s jobs are changing. We don’t have any staffing changes planned.” Or just the security people feel in knowing what their job is and the likelihood when you’re proposing a change that that may change and they may not feel confident in their role anymore in the same way.

Michael: That’s a really good point. For us, as managers, we don’t want to upset people in an unkind way. I used to work for a guy who actually liked to keep people guessing. He liked to keep people off balance. I just thought it was kind of a nasty…

Megan: It’s kind of cruel.

Michael: …cruel game. I think it’s much better if you’re going to process the change, if you’re serious about the change, to just go ahead and tell people what’s not going to change, and then let them roll into what is going to change.

Larry: So, the first challenge to overcome is the change challenge, and you do that by providing clarity about what’s changing and what’s not changing. That brings us to the second challenge: the personnel challenge.

Megan: This is really about helping people see themselves in the picture. It reminds me of… Recently, we had our annual team meeting, and we had a portion of the meeting where we shared organizational charts of the whole company. We did it for the first time with photos, just because we happened to find a software solution that had photos built in. It was really cool. If you’re interested, it’s called Pingboard.

Michael: Love that app.

Megan: We’ll put that in the show notes. Anyway, we shared these along with our hiring strategies, all that kind of stuff. There were a lot of changes that had already been communicated to the people it was affecting before they got there so there were no surprises, but here’s the thing you will notice if you ever do this: people go immediately to find their picture.

Michael: Totally.

Megan: All they care about is “Where am I, and am I still good with it?”

Michael: Well, just look at a group photo. You get your picture taken in a group photo, and the first thing you want to know is, “Are my eyes open? Do I look good?” Then you look at everybody else. If it’s a good picture of you and other people have their eyes closed, it’s not a big deal, but you want your eyes open and a good smile on your face.

Megan: Right. Leaders, on the other hand, naturally get more excited about the big picture. They’re looking at the composite. “What does it mean? Where are we going?” and all of that. They may want to focus on a new product line or a new departmental structure, and they philosophically are bought into that new structure.

I’ve had this experience myself. If you’re not careful, you’re not thinking about what it means to the people who it’s directly affecting and how you are thinking about how to manage that. If you’re just thinking about what it makes possible when it’s all together, you will miss the individual impact, and that can be devastating in your organization.

Michael: We said before that with the change challenge, the thing you need is clarity. With the personnel challenge, the thing you need is candor and inclusion. You have to be direct. You have to be candid about the changes. You can’t downplay it. You can’t sugarcoat it. This builds trust, actually. It may unnerve people some in the beginning.

If you say, for example, “Look. This change is going to mean that some positions are going to be eliminated or we’re going to have to shuffle some positions around,” or whatever. You have to be honest about that on the front end. First of all, the more you have figured out, to kind of go to the clarity point, the better it’s going to be, but if you have to make the change and you don’t have it all figured out, go ahead and say that.

Megan: One thing, too, we’ve talked about at other times on the podcast is the idea of cascading communication. This is where you’re intentionally reading in stakeholders from a hierarchical perspective. You never want people who are the leaders in your organization who are representing this change initiative on your behalf to be unclear or surprised.

You also don’t want people who maybe are having their positions eliminated or changed… You don’t want those people to find that out in the context of a big team meeting where their heads are spinning and they’re humiliated and terrified. You want to handle that and reassure them and have all that communication handled before you get to the big meeting. This is something leaders miss, because they’re so focused on the big picture they forget all of these steps of communication.

The goal, in my mind, is that when you finally get to the big team meeting when you’re going to roll out the big vision or the big change, anybody who’s directly affected is sitting there knowing what’s coming. They’re not surprised. This takes a lot of coordination. It takes a lot of choreography to get there. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of contingency planning, but it’s so worth it, because you are able to maintain trust with your team as you go. You can destroy that in an instant at an all-team meeting where you announce something like that.

Michael: We have a name for that that we teach our coaching clients called cascading communication. It starts at the top, cascades down to the next level, and then cascades down to the next level, so that you give the supervisors at each level the benefit of knowing before the next level goes down, and that works really, really well.

I do want to say something about being inclusive. To the extent that you can… And it depends on the change. Some change is going to be great. It’s going to create jobs. We have some change underway right now. We have eight, nine, or ten different positions posted on our website right now. But to be inclusive and tell people or assure people they have a place in the future. For some people, for most people, hopefully, it’s going to mean they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing. For others, there may be some changes, which, again, you need to discuss before you announce this publicly.

Emphasize that if they’re willing to grow there’s a place for them. I think that’s critical. I’m not a parent. This isn’t a family. I don’t have a responsibility to provide a job or to make a place for you. You have a responsibility to make a place for yourself. I’m going to give you every opportunity, but you have to grow if you want to have a place in the future. Does that make sense?

Megan: Totally. I think that’s a good balance. That feels healthy to me. I think you can wield that change conversation in a way that creates mass uncertainty in a way that’s really unproductive or you can use a little bit of that uncertainty to spur people to grow in a way that is productive and that’s ultimately healthy for the organization and for your team.

Michael: And to use a word we’ve used before, to remind them that they have agency in this. They’re not just being whipsawed by the whims of management. Again, this is my style and what I want to do. I want to communicate “No, you have a place in this. If you want a place in the future, we’re collectively going to make this happen.”

Larry: I really like that, Michael, because I’ve seen some leaders soft-pedal the change or cater to people who are stakeholders they didn’t want to upset by promising them “For you, nothing is going to change,” which wasn’t best for the organization, or protect positions that really needed to be either retired or altered for that same reason, but allowing people to step up into something new I think is very empowering.

Michael: I do too.

Megan: One of the things that can happen is you can think you have somebody on your team who’s kind of dead weight or not a high contributor, and one of the things I’ve seen happen… I actually had a conversation with somebody I met at a mastermind event recently, talking about somebody on his team who he was convinced he was going to have to let go. It was actually a handful of people from a previous administration that he took over.

Over the course of our time together, it kind of dawned on him that maybe the problem with those people was the leader who had left but who was in charge of them and not the people themselves and that with his communication of vision and clear goals and developing them they might be salvageable. I think that’s important, because sometimes that’s possible. Sometimes it’s not and we have to deal with that very directly, but it’s important to know the difference between those things.

Larry: People can be capable of more than you think and of handling more than you think they can. You’ve said that often, Michael and Megan both. Give people some respect; they can handle it.

Michael: It’s easy, as leaders, to think people are fragile and weak and small, and I think we have to see them bigger than they see themselves. People can handle most anything, and I think your expectation as a leader can help create that reality for them.

Megan: One of the things that can really help when you’re communicating change is to remind people what’s in it for them. We’re talking about, up to this point, there potentially are perceived negative impacts of change and you really have to manage those carefully. There are also potential upsides: new positions, bonus opportunities, promotions, things like that. If those are possibilities you see, you need to be really clear about communicating them, because everybody is concerned about, “What does this mean for me?” negatively but also positively.

If you’re introducing a goal that means you’re going to be exceeding your budget in a significant way, if there’s an upside on your bonus plan for that, go ahead and quantify that for people. Really make it tangible what this means for them, because most people get really excited when they understand there’s a personal upside. Not just the company is going to win but, as a result, they’re also going to win. I think we forget that. Again, because we’re so focused on the big picture, we forget to pull that down to an individual contributor level where people understand what’s at stake for them personally in a good way.

Michael: I just thought of another thing that’s similar to this. That is, you have to give the why behind the what. Sometimes the why is obvious, why we’re making this change, and so often it’s not readily apparent to the people we’re trying to lead. If we don’t speak it, they can’t read our minds. You can’t read the mind of your spouse. You can’t read the mind of your best friend. You can’t read the mind of your boss.

If you’re not clear and articulate about that and say, “This is exactly why we’re doing this,” then people are going to start making up the why. “Well, they’re doing that to cut costs” or “They’re doing that so the owner can put more profit in his pocket,” you know, all of these different kinds of whys. That’s why it’s important to say, “No, we’re doing this because (for example) we’re heading into some economic headwinds, and we want to trim the sails and make sure we can get through this so as many of us as can can survive and thrive in this new economy.”

Larry: So, the second challenge is the personnel challenge, and you overcome that challenge with candor tempered by inclusion. Remember that people want to know what’s happening, but they want to see themselves in the picture. That brings us to the third challenge: the feedback challenge.

Megan: This is a big one, because this is not external. This is a challenge that a leader faces within him or herself. This is in your own head. Many of us are not in the right head space to take feedback from our team. We are super pumped and gung-ho about our plan, and we really don’t want to be slowed down by feedback, because there’s usually a sense of urgency and “We’ve got to get this done right now.” When you get mired in feedback from your team, this is hard. This slows you down and, potentially, threatens the whole project. That can be really difficult to allow to happen, but you cannot avoid this. Or you can avoid it, but you’ll avoid it at your own peril.

Michael: I’ve seen this before when people try to create a vision for their company, like I talk about in The Vision Driven Leader, my new book. The leader goes off, as I recommend, and comes up with a vision, and I say to them, “You’re not Moses coming down from Sinai. This is wet cement, and you can’t get married to the vision at this point. You have to hold it with open hands. Come back to your team and solicit their feedback.”

Too often what happens is they do get married to the vision. They think they’ve thought through everything, and then they get into a mode where they start defending the vision instead of folding in the input. Here’s the truth: People see things you don’t see. They notice things you couldn’t possibly know. So if you don’t fold in their perspective and consider it, you’re not going to end up with the best vision or the best change you’re trying to implement in your company. You have to listen carefully. You have to be open to feedback.

One of the things I’ve said before on this show is you have to create this environment that’s safe for dissent where people feel like they can push back. If they don’t, if they catch either from your explicit language or your body language that you’re not open to feedback, they’ll shut down. People are going to preserve themselves at all costs, and if they think it’s personally threatening to their job or their future, they’re not going to go out on a limb.

It’s up to you to communicate with your verbal signals, with your body language, with everything else that you want their feedback, and if they don’t give you feedback, if you share the change or share the vision and it’s crickets, you have to call people out. You have to say, “Megan, what do you think of this? And I want you to be honest with me. It’s totally safe. I want you to be honest with me, because I need your input to make this the best it can be.”

What people will do, typically, in a meeting like that is somebody will send up a trial balloon, you know, something small. They’ll just say, “Well, I think it’s pretty good, but there’s this one little thing I’d tweak.” What they’re doing is it’s not that that’s all they have to share; that’s just the smallest risk to them. They’re going to test you. If that doesn’t go well, then…trust me…they’re not going to share anything else. If that goes well, then somebody might share a little bigger one. It’s not surprising that, so often, the biggest resistance comes at the very end of the meeting right before you dismiss.

Megan: It’s just like when you go to therapy. You basically waste the first 40 minutes of your 50-minute session on trivial issues, and then at the very end you bring out the big one. Usually those last 10 minutes are very valuable, but you’ve really resisted it all the way to the end.

Michael: Don’t ask you how you know this.

Megan: Oh, I’ve done a lot of therapy, so I have done this myself many times. I think what you’re saying is really important, because the feedback and even the resistance from your team will ultimately make you better. That has to be your mindset going into these conversations, where it’s not about if they are willing to support you, if they are going to get behind what you want, or if they are on your team or not. If you’re really committed to your vision, it’s really about, “How can we make this the very best version of this possible?” You need to go through the trial period before you’re ready to roll this out if it’s really going to happen. This is a gift in disguise, but you have to be mature about how you engage with it.

Michael: One other point about that conversation around the table when you’re introducing the vision to your smaller team. When somebody voices an objection, don’t immediately, reflexively, fall back into defense mode. Instead, force yourself, discipline yourself, to ask another question. In fact, ask two or three questions. You want to make sure they get it all out and that you fully understand it. Again, this is just a way to shut it down. You think, “I’m just being reasonable. We’re just having a debate here.” Look. There’s a power differential. You’re not on the same plane. You can come off more heavy-handed than you think just by raising an objection, so don’t do that. Ask a question. Invite them to say more.

Larry: Okay. You guys have both introduced a fair amount of change in your lives. Have you ever experienced this, where you learned something from the pushback or the comments you got?

Megan: Well, we don’t ever get pushback, so… Just kidding. We get lots of pushback. This actually happened to me yesterday, in fact, in a meeting. It’s funny that we’re recording this today. I have been working on a project I wanted to roll out to our executive team as kind of the first step, all about improving our customer and client experiences in some really exciting ways that I just knew they would be so pumped about. And they were excited, but they also had some really constructive feedback about the challenges that would be a part of implementing those changes and just some things I hadn’t thought of.

Just like everybody else, my first instinct was to be defensive. I was a little bit disappointed, because even though it wasn’t really my expectation that it would be received without any pushback, secretly, I kind of hoped they would be as wowed as I was. You know, we all have that feeling. But I’ll tell you what. The feedback they had was really, really helpful and I know, ultimately, is going to make the project so much better. It may change the timeline. It may change how we phase it out, and I have to be open to that, but I know the outcome will be so much better.

The other thing that was interesting about that is if you’ve ever been in a situation where someone has rolled out change and you’ve had feedback to give, it can be challenging to know how to do that. Are you really bold and just say, “This is terrible” right from the beginning or do you sort of tiptoe up to the edge and see how it goes? Well, Chad Cannon, our chief sales officer, did a really good job of sharing some input with me.

He was genuinely really supportive and really encouraging about a handful of things he loved about the project and I could tell was excited about it, but then he was also equally honest about what he saw as the challenges. I think that helped. You’re not always going to get that from your people. He has a high tolerance for change and is generally enthusiastic about it. But if you can, if you’re giving feedback, remember that your boss is a human and probably kind of insecure about sharing, as I was. I mean, it’s vulnerable to share change, especially with your key stakeholders.

If there are things you can legitimately affirm, it’s so helpful. It’s kind of like that sandwich idea of you have a positive thing, and then the negative thing, and then something positive. If your boss can feel that you’re supportive and you’re really for him or her but that you’re also, because of that, willing to share constructive feedback, that’s kind of your best-case scenario. So, depending on which end of this you are (and most of us will be on both at one time or the other), I think those are some helpful takeaways from my experience.

Michael: My favorite line there was “Your boss is a human too.”

Megan: It’s kind of easy to forget. I forget you’re a human all the time.

Michael: Well, probably some things I do don’t help.

Larry: So, today we’ve learned that every leader can overcome resistance to change by addressing these three challenges: the change challenge, which you overcome with clarity about what’s changing and what’s not; the personnel challenge that you overcome with candor and inclusion, letting people know exactly where they are in the picture; and the feedback challenge, which you overcome with objectivity about the change and a willingness to listen to feedback. What final thoughts do you have for our listeners?

Megan: I love this topic because it’s so present to me all the time, because we have a lot of change nonstop, and I think that’s probably true for our listeners too. This is one of those things… If you’re a leader and you’re endeavoring to lead a high-growth organization that’s innovative, it’s going to come up constantly for you. This is an area we have to master. I think the good news is you can master it, but it does take practice. You’re not going to be great at it from the beginning, but it takes practice and it takes emotional intelligence and it takes a commitment to managing it well and mastering it. I hope these tips we’ve given today help people down that road.

Michael: Change is the one constant in business. Like you said, Megan, this is something we have to get good at, and the better we get at it, the faster our companies can change and move into the future. So if you’re really pursuing an important vision, something you really want to accomplish, the better you are at change management, the more likely you are to achieve that vision and the more likely you’re going to be able to process it in your organization in a healthy way.

Larry: Well, good stuff today, both of you; very helpful stuff that I know is going to impact a lot of leaders.

Michael: Well, thank you, Larry, and thank you, Megan. Thanks to all of you for listening to us. Join us next week when we’ll have another episode. Until then, lead to win.