Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

January 2020
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Leadership Letters

Change Can Be Traumatic! Your Followers Need Your Care.

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

This is the final part in a series on organizational change
Part 1:Leader, Be Prepared! Your Followers May Resist Change.
Part 2: Change in Real Time: What You Need to Know As a Leader
Part 3: Without a Strategy for Change, You’re Sunk

Recently we explored the process of change in an organization. But any organization is built of people, so how do you support your people in the midst of change?

How People React to Change

To successfully lead organizational change, leaders must understand how people react to change.

People react to major organizational change in a manner similar to how they react to sudden traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, or a natural disaster that destroys one’s home. The reaction pattern has four stages:

  1. Denial. The initial reaction is to deny that change will be necessary. “This isn’t happening” or “It’s just a temporary setback.”
  2. Anger. The next stage is to get angry and look for someone to blame. At the same time, people stubbornly resist giving up accustomed ways of doing things.
  3. Mourning. In this stage, people stop denying that change is inevitable, acknowledge what has been lost, and mourn it.
  4. Adaptation. The final stage is to accept the need to change and get on with life.

Even when a major change is clearly necessary and beneficial, it is stressful and painful for people. The duration and severity of each type of reaction can vary greatly, and some people get stuck in an intermediate stage. Leaders must understand these stages and learn to be patient and helpful.

Encouraging Your People in the Midst of Change

Change causes adjustment, discomfort, disruption and dislocation, so a vital part of implementing change involves encouraging people. Even those who are initially excited about a change will need continued support as inevitable difficulties and failures occur. It is the leader’s responsibility to:

  1. Prepare people to adjust to change.

Change requires difficult adjustments. If people are unable to handle the stress of change, they may become depressed or mutinous. Alternating successes and failures give even the most optimistic change agents the feeling that they are on an emotional roller coaster. Uncertainty about progress and the repeated discovery of new obstacles increase fatigue and frustration.

All these negative aspects of change are easier to cope with if the people know in advance what to expect and how to deal with it.

It is far better to be realistic about the necessary adjustments and pain than to present the upcoming change as a cure-all with no costs or problems. One strategy is to find another organization that has implemented similar change and have someone from it share about their experiences and what they did to get through their change successfully.

When significant changes occur, some people experience personal pain at the loss of familiar things to which they had become attached – strategies and programs, equipment and work procedures, facilities, management practices, or leaders.

Leaders can help their people by allowing them to verbalize their sense of loss and grief, and then gently pointing them to the benefits of the change and the bright new future before them. Leaders should also pray for and with their constituents for the grace of God to help them make the transition.

In a time of stress and anxiety, people look to their leaders to explain what is happening and to keep them informed. People will be more optimistic and enthusiastic if they know the change is progressing successfully.

Leaders should frequently communicate what steps have been initiated, what changes have been completed and what resulting improvements have occurred. Successes should be celebrated and people recognized for their contributions and achievements.

When obstacles are encountered, the leaders should explain what they are and what will be done about them. If the plan for change must be revised, leaders should explain why it was necessary. Otherwise, people may interpret revisions as a sign of faltering commitment or impending disaster.

God holds the future in His hands, and if the change is in line with His will and purposes, He will see the organization through. God is faithful.

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6)

“…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

Stress is directly related to change.

Of course, not all stress is bad. Life without stress would be life without change, which would be life without growth, which would be life without life! Without at least some change and stress, we will go nowhere.

On the other hand, if there is too much change and stress, things start to break down. High levels of stress contribute to a myriad of physical, emotional, spiritual and relational problems. Moreover, when stress is pushed to the extremes, burnout occurs.

If you take a small sapling and bend it over, it will straighten back up again when you let go. But if you bend it until it breaks, it cannot straighten back up. This is a picture of burnout. If we continuously change and change and change, eventually something inside may snap. When this happens, healing comes slowly, and, scarred and weary, we may not ever get back to the same level of enthusiasm and innocence we once enjoyed.

The following are some ways that leaders can control change and blunt stress:

  1. Slow the rate of change. If your constituents are already stressed out, slow down! Leaders must know the state of their people. They must realistically assess their constituents’ needs and abilities. Don’t try to push your people faster than they can move.

Any change procedure must be submitted to the will and purposes of God, and it must be bathed in prayer. But understanding how you can support your followers will ease the transition for your entire organization.

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