Supporting a team effectively through a change is an invaluable skill for any manager. And, with the Covid–19 pandemic affecting all of us in some way, it has never been more relevant. Some changes can have huge impacts on people’s mental well-being and their ability to perform in their role. Therefore, supporting people to develop greater resilience to change is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but it also helps to protect your team’s productivity.
To effectively support people through a change, it’s important to understand why change can be so difficult. All change is emotive – it doesn’t matter if a change is regarded as positive or negative, it will still create an emotional reaction in the people affected by it. Models such as the Kubler-Ross Change Curve attempt to illustrate the psychological journey a person has to go on when faced with a change. Opinion is divided as to how accurate the particulars of such models are, but the truth is that everyone has to process their emotional reaction to a change before they can accept it and move forward.
So why is change so emotive?
One reason is that change brings with it something humans find particularly difficult – uncertainty. Neuroscientific research has proven that the state of uncertainty is the most stressful state for humans to be in. Apparently, uncertainty registers as an error in the human brain and we feel compelled to resolve it. Some changes can result in people experiencing uncertainty for an extended period of time which can be very draining. Another reason change is so emotive is that a common reaction to it is a fear of loss. In a work environment, this could be a fear of a loss of job security, job satisfaction or simply the ability to perform activities to the same high standard.
The good news is that an effective and supportive line manager can make a hugely positive difference to a person going through a change. Below are some strategies you can put into practice:
1) Encourage people to talk
Humans fare much better when they articulate and process their emotions, and so give your team members lots of opportunities to share how they’re feeling about the change. Don’t assume that they have someone they can talk about their feelings with outside of work. Vary the forum to give everyone the chance to open up – some people flourish in a group setting, others prefer one on one.
2) Talk openly about resilience
Talk with your team about the importance of protecting and building personal resilience, and be clear about what you believe resilience is and importantly isn’t. Remind people that resilience isn’t about being strong and pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Resilience is about practising healthy habits – both physical and mental, recognising how a situation is affecting you and asking for help when you need it.
3) Be open about your own challenges
Sharing your own struggles with your team members will encourage them to open up about their own. This is not only a bonding experience for a team, but will give you insight into what support people need. One idea is to invite everyone to share a highlight and lowlight from their past week. If people are nervous to share, start with your own. What you’re doing is acknowledging that it’s OK not to feel OK all of the time.
4) Model healthy habits
Encourage your team to reflect on what healthy habits – mental and physical – will give their resilience a boost. What helps them feel stronger and more able to face challenges? You could run a team session where everyone shares and discusses the habits that are important to them. Again, be open about your own healthy habits – whether they’re eating well, getting more exercise, meditating and/or keeping in touch with friends.
5) Keep people informed
Feeling like they’re being kept well informed about a change will help people to cope with it better. Make sure you communicate regularly with your team and pass on any relevant company updates. Give team members a chance to ask questions and discuss any updates. Remember, if no information is available, people are more likely to speculate a worst-case scenario than a best-case, so use regular updates to keep rumours to a minimum. Where relevant, remind your team of the company strategy that’s driving change and the benefits you’re working towards.
6) Remember we’re all different
Remember that everyone’s experience of change is personal, and so will need different support. Your team members’ situations will vary and so will their emotional reactions. The best way to find out how someone is really feeling is to be a great listener – ask open questions, don’t interrupt or change the subject and show a genuine interest in what a person is saying. Make use of open questions, such as: How are you feeling/did you feel about that? Can you tell me more? What was it that you found challenging? What was your experience?
7) Remember you’re a person, too!
And lastly, don’t forget that you’re a person as well as a manager and you need to build and protect your own resilience. Be sure you practise your own personal healthy habits, and to reach out to your own manager if you need support.
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Kirstin McCreadie is a change consultant at Oxford University Press based in Oxford. As well as being involved in overseeing the implementation of changes across the organisation, she also develops and delivers training in change and resilience. Kirstin also has experience of line management and leading teams through changes.