What is change leadership and how much change is too much change?

Two people having a discussion in an office.

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It was a really interesting workshop to run – Leadership Challenges in a VUCA World – and a highly engaged group of leaders taking part in the program. 

Whilst one could easily think coming out of the pandemic, that the term VUCA (referring to the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of the world right now) is a relatively new leadership term, it has in fact been part of the management vernacular since the late 1980’s. However, given the major shake-up that Covid has left in its wake, there are now many organisations out there wanting to ensure that their leaders (experienced, new, and emerging) are better prepared and ready to embrace the challenges that a VUCA world can bring. 

During the lunch break, one of the participants approached me privately and explained that he wanted to ask me a question that he hadn’t felt comfortable asking in front of the others. Of course, I was all ears. 

“I appreciate that part of any manager’s role is to embrace challenges, to be a change leader, and to turn employee uncertainty into confidence. But how much change is too much change, even for an experienced leader?” 

A very powerful question, and yet he didn’t want to raise it in front of his peers because he thought they might assume that he couldn’t cope with change or handle too many challenges at once. 

I assured him that if he was thinking along these lines, then there would certainly be others in the room having similar thoughts, so I encouraged him to consider posing his question to the broader group after the break. 

He agreed to do so, and it sparked some awesome discussion among this particular group of leaders. 

Everyone in the room agreed that putting aside the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the last few years, change leadership has always been high on the agenda in order to prevent team members from feeling anxious or panicking about changes within their business. Whether these changes involved organisational restructuring, introducing new hybrid working models, new processes, systems, or updated best practices, leaders at every level within the business are responsible for managing this change. 

With this in mind, I still wanted to bring the conversation back to what I thought to be the crux of the question, that being, ‘how much change is too much change, even for an experienced leader?’. 

It quickly became evident that everyone in the room was thinking about this from both the perspective of (a) themselves as leaders and (b) their team members.

After all, there can really only be so much change before it all starts to feel like it’s a bit too much (for everyone involved).

And from the team members’ perspective, when it all starts to feel a bit too hard, this then quickly leads to a rapid decline in employee engagement with even the most resilient employees going in search of something more stable. 

But what about the leaders themselves? Having to always be on high alert, putting out ‘fires’ before they spread through the business, constantly thinking about how to communicate the changes to their team members individually and as a group, or having to continually create stability from the instability brought about by all the changes going on can be absolutely exhausting. 

I could see relief in every single participant in the room as they realised they were not alone in having these thoughts. And I was so thankful that the one participant who at first hadn’t been comfortable posing the question agreed to do so, because it completely shifted the energy in the room fostering collaboration and peer support to what could potentially have been a very vulnerable topic. 

Whilst change is a necessary evil in any business, change leadership is hard.

And managing change and other unexpected challenges is a critical skill for leaders at any level within an organisation regardless of any VUCA scenarios that might be at play. 

No matter how prepared for change we might be as leaders, as another one of the workshop participants said, we are always in a state of change, and change will create instability and uncertainty whether we like it or not. It’s our job to turn the uncertainty around and to provide stability and direction during transitional times. 

Unless you are the CEO, Chairman of the Board, or owner of the business, you will always be the messenger when it comes to communicating the news of any upcoming changes to those working in your team.  

And at times when there is a lot of change on the horizon, the role of the messenger is never easy. Your team members will want to know how the changes will impact them and you might not always have the answers they are looking for, but you still need to show support for the change(s) while also showing that you care about how your team might be affected. 

Any leader guiding a team through change will also find themselves playing the role of coach – supporting the reactions of the individual team members and the responses of the team as a whole while simultaneously trying to maintain a sense of status quo. 

A change leader can often feel like the cheese in a sandwich – feeling the pressure to support the decisions coming from above and to convey the news of all the changes to their team members with optimism, while knowing the repercussions the news of any changes may cause from those at the frontline of the business. At the same time, when team members start questioning or complaining about the amount of change or disruption, the change leader must think very carefully as to how much of the disgruntlement gets fed up the food chain, since every leader wants to appear in complete control of any situation within their team. 

It’s not always possible to be aware of every change on the horizon.  

Did anyone really predict the challenges COVID-19 would bring to the world of work? But when change is imminent, communicating the news to your team members with confidence and reinforcing that you are there to support them through the changes is key. However, as we’ve shared in previous articles, either communicate everything or nothing at all. Don’t sugar coat or share half-truths about what lies ahead (if you know the full story), and don’t share the news with some team members assuming that others either don’t need to know or might not care. This could never be further from the truth. 

Guiding a team through change isn’t easy, and it’s the role of every leader (in their capacity as change leader) to ensure those around them aren’t taken by surprise by the changes and feel safe as the team or business transforms. 

Of course, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders navigate change while embracing the challenges of a VUCA world. 

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