Keeping the team on track in challenging times: grief and change management

Posted on March 21, 2016

Understanding and working positively with employee grief at losing colleagues in times of cut-backs and being able to lead change management are challenges for all leaders. Organisations that overly focus on the numbers, such as savings to be made or headcount to lose, and forget about the people left to continue working, will find productivity and commitment drop sharply.

Focus Managing Director, Jackie Schwarz, spoke on the topic today at Get Set UAE to an audience of HR leaders and professionals. She covered two salient topics: employee grief and change management.

Employees react emotionally to the redundancy of colleagues

If you’ve recently had to make people redundant – or if you’re planning on it – what’s left of your team will be faced with lots of change. Your goals will have changed, your strategy, your budget – everything around them is changing – and not for the better. Effectively, their old world – the one they knew and loved – is dying.

Three of the biggest changes your survivors will have to face are: losing colleagues; working in new teams; and taking on more responsibility as you combine roles.

Any one of these changes can derail the best of teams. And in the current economic climate, the last thing you want is a dysfunctional or unproductive team. So I’ve got a few tips on how to keep everyone moving forward rather than looking back, and how to help the team regain focus and motivation as quickly as possible.

Perhaps one of the most important steps you can take at this stage is to recognise their emotional state. This is important because emotions hijack logic and reason, and make people behave in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

The model from Helen Kubler-Ross and David Kessler is excellent for understanding employee emotions during times of organisational change. 

As you can see, it shows the emotions people go through when faced with loss. The people you’ve had to lay off will be feeling these emotions and so will you (so don’t make any tough decisions until you’ve got a clear head!). Your survivors will also be feeling the same way.

Immobilisation and denial are where people are caught in the headlights and freeze. Performance dips sharply and people say things like, ‘Everything was ok as it was – why do we need to change?’

Anger, Bargaining and Depression are when people start looking for scapegoats and disagreeing strongly with the decisions you’ve made. They’ll say things like, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way!’ They might fixate on small issues and refuse to change the way they do things. They try in vain to find a way out of the new situation. Depression is when people realise that the situation is inevitable and they feel apathy and isolation. Performance is usually, unsurprisingly, at its lowest at this stage.

Testing and Acceptance are about looking for realistic solutions and finally finding a way forward. People start thinking ‘Actually, it’s going to be ok’ and performance picks up.

You might want to keep in mind that everyone goes through the curve at a different rate. Some people will go through Immobilisation and Denial very quickly but get stuck in Depression. Others might spend a while in Anger but then move quickly to Acceptance. Also, keep in mind that as a leader, you’ll have known about these changes before anyone else so you’re likely to be ahead in your emotions compared to the rest of the team. So when the team is in Denial, you could already be in the Depression stage.

Our job as leaders is to smooth out this curve as much as we can – make the highs lower and the lows higher – and keep performance up. 

Effective change management is everything

John Kotter is a professor at Harvard whose career has been built on researching organisational change. His 8-step programme has been used successfully by all sorts of companies around the world and you could use it too with your company. I’ve summarised the programme but you could read more in his book called ‘The Heart of Change’.

  1. Create a sense of urgency: help everyone see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately. This is no time for delay or debate! If it can be done today, do it today. And show them, don’t tell them. If you rely on logic and reason to convince people, you’re likely to be frustrated by the team’s response.
  2. Pull together the guiding team: make sure there is a powerful group guiding the change – one that shares your credibility and sense of urgency. As a leader, you need to show enthusiasm and commitment, and to model trust and teamwork. Be aware of your own emotions at this stage – your body language will give it away if you are not truly enthusiastic and committed, even though you are saying the right words.
  3. Develop a new vision and strategy: clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how you can make that future a reality. Show people what the future looks like in a way that engages their emotion. Spreadsheets and financial analysis won’t work – people need to see and feel what the future is going to be.
  4. Communicate for understanding and buy-in: make sure as many people as possible understand and accept the new vision and the strategy. Keep communication simple and heartfelt. Give people a way to replace their anger or depression with another emotion like ‘excitement’ to buy in to. Remember what you learned years ago in Sales – people only buy 2 things: feelings and solutions. So when you’re communicating for buy-in, communicate the benefits, not the features.
  5. Empowering others to act involves removing as many barriers as possible so that those who want to make the vision a reality can do so. Change cumbersome processes. Retrain staff to handle their new roles. Reward behaviour that matches what you’re looking for.
  6. Produce short-term wins: create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible – even if they seem small compared with the big vision. Come up with wins that create positive emotions, that you share with the whole team.
  7. Don’t let up: press harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality.
  8. Create a new culture: hold onto the new ways of behaving until they become strong enough to replace old traditions – don’t let people slide back into their old ways. Tell vivid stories over and over about the new organisation, not the old one. Continue to reward the behaviour you want. And as you come out of recession, employ new people who match your new culture.

I hope these few tips will help to get your surviving teams back on track. Hopefully they will help you to persuade your teams that rather than mourn the loss of the past, they can look forward to the birth of a new future.

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