Change is a part of life that can be stressful for everyone. Whether it’s moving to a new city, starting a new job, or going on a first date, it can all be intimidating. As a leader, helping your people navigate change is crucial to building a strong and successful team. This means you need to understand psychological safety, the change process, and come up with some solid strategies and techniques to implement change. As Darwin said, “it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive but those who can best manage change.”

Leading Change + Change Theory

Creating Psychological Safety

In order to respond to change in a healthy way, your team needs to feel a sense of psychological safety. Timothy Clark has a great theory on this where he breaks down psychological safety into four different categories. These four stages are:

  1. Inclusion Safety – members feel safe to belong to the team. They are comfortable being present, do not feel excluded, and feel like they are wanted and appreciated.
  2. Learner Safety – members are able to learn through asking questions. Team members here may be able to experiment, make (and admit) small mistakes, and ask for help.
  3. Contributor Safety – members feel safe to contribute their own ideas, without fear of embarrassment or ridicule. This is a more challenging state, because volunteering your own ideas can increase the psychosocial vulnerability of team members.
  4. Challenger Safety – members can question others’ ideas or suggest significant changes to ideas, plans, or ways of working.

Each of these four levels is a crucial aspect of psychological safety and without having all of them your teams will not be as equipped as they could be to handle change and conflict at work. Another great way to visualize how people deal with change is Virginia Satir’s Change Model. The diagram below demonstrates the many stages to change and how it is not always a linear process.

(Photo curtesy of Ricardo Vargas)

We just used the change model during an executive coaching workshop in Toronto. This model is a useful way to think about how you, your team, and the organization moves through disruptive change. It helps normalize the stages that people will go through, thereby helping you create a proactive plan to support people through the process. 

Think about the last time you introduced a significant change to your team. What happened? Did they get excited and get on board right away, or were they hesitant, resistant to the change? When leaders encounter resistance, they often dig in and try to be more forceful in encouraging the team to accept the new way. The more they push, the more resistant some people get. This creates a negative loop.

As the leader, you likely have already moved through all the stages of the change process and are connected to the benefits of the New Status Quo state. When you introduce the change, the Foreign Element, you forget that your team is back on the other side of the chasm. It is normal for people to initially be resistant; they are still more connected to the Old Status Quo. It’s comfortable and safe for them. They know what to expect of themselves and each other. Resistance can show up as denial, anger, lower levels of confidence in themselves or the organization, lower team morale and lower performance in general. This is normal and to be expected. At this stage people need help to understand why the change is important and what things might look like in the New Status Quo. It’s helpful to connect them with what is not changing, as well as what needs to change.

As you continue to lead the team through the change you will encounter chaos and confusion. There might be new relationships to be built and new systems and processes to learn. The loss of what they had can trigger feelings of anxiety, nervousness and vulnerability in some people. Performance again can take a nose-dive as people try to come to terms with what is changing in their world. Many leaders want to hurry their team through this stage. However, Satir identifies that this stage is vital to the transformation process. It’s helpful during this stage to acknowledge and normalize the feelings and fears and introduce support systems.  

The team is moving into Integration when they begin connecting to the benefits of the change. During this stage people begin shifting their mindset to the belief that the change is going to benefit them in some way, the see new opportunities. They get on board and start pushing for the change to move quickly so they can get to the New Status Quo state. As a leader you get excited about the shift in mindset and the renewed energy of the team and can feel like you have left the Chaos behind. At this stage people still need support as they can become frustrated when things doing go perfectly or quick enough. It’s normal to backslide into Chaos during this stage as people experiment with the new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s helpful to keep reinforcing the benefits of the end goal and the successes that have already occurred that are moving them in the right direction.

You know you are in the New Status Quo stage when the team performance and morale increases, often to a higher level. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment that the team has moved through the change and come out better on the other side.   It is important to note that the time it takes people to move through this process varies greatly depending on to the individual. Some people move through the stages very quickly, almost seamlessly and others are slower adopters of change.

Applying Change Theory to your Leadership

Now that we have gone over some of the principles of change theory, lets explore how they can be applied to leading change in your organization. As we have mentioned, one of the main factors that plays into successful change management is creating psychological safety with your people. Here are three main things you can do to get your people on board with change.

Plan Before You Execute and Speak

You need to be as prepared as possible for initiating change with your teams. Before rolling out change, ask yourself: Have I talked to everyone this might impact before finalizing my plan? Is this change going to be positive or negative for my people? What are the positives from the change I can use to inspire my people with? What kind of questions will people have?

Set the Stage

First and foremost, you need to make sure you set the stage for what the change is going to look like for your team. The most difficult part of going through change tends to be the chaos that comes from the fear of the unknown. By being as transparent with your teams and setting expectations around what you want the change to look like, you help eliminate the unknown from the change equation. Having everyone aligned on what they are expected to do, and what they have to look forward to is a great place to start.

Create a Space for Discussion and Support

Your people need to feel confident that they can share their opinions and ideas for change to work. Be sure to encourage discussion and communication around the change. Provide some guidelines around discussion and model intense listening. Your team will want to be heard, and they will definitely have some ideas or opinions that could help with how the change is approached.

Reward Change Behaviors

Finding creative ways to reward “change behaviors” is a great way to encourage your people to embrace change. For example, if the change you are rolling out is a transition from hybrid work to in person, you could implement a weekly pizza day to reward people coming in. It doesn’t have to be complicated but your people will appreciate that you recognize they are putting in the effort.

In conclusion, leading change in an organization needs a thorough understanding of human psychology, a well-thought-out plan, and a dedication to establishing a supportive atmosphere. Leaders can promote open communication and change adaptation by providing psychological safety. Planning carefully, communicating openly, and providing a forum for open debates ensures team members feel valued and included. Rewarding change behaviors reinforces good change reactions. Change is a chance to grow and develop. Adopting this mindset and using these tactics can help your team adjust to change and build resilience.