Leading Staff Through Change? Hear ‘Em Out.

Big changes make for stressed-out employees. What can a CEO do to get the team behind a new vision?

Last week I spoke with a CEO who recently led a serious staff overhaul at his association. Improvements need to be made to the association’s membership structure and technology savvy to respond to shifts in its industry. But many of the association’s senior staff, comfortable in the roles they’ve had for years, didn’t have what the CEO felt was the necessary enthusiasm to adapt. As the CEO described it to me, much of the old staff found their way to the door while new staff is eagerly implementing a new vision.

There are two ways of looking at this experience, I think. On one hand, it’s emblematic of the willingness to make big moves that we respect and admire in leaders—the world changes fast, and you have to change with it. But it also speaks to how difficult it is to manage staff cultures and ensure that not only is your team capable and enthusiastic, but flexible as well. Can you restructure without cleaning house?

“Employees should be given as much freedom as possible … using their own methods.”

It’s not news that staff leadership can be inherently paradoxical—employees want to feel like the ship they’re on is steady, but shaking things up is essential. Just last week, AssociationsNow.com reported that  many associations can be a little too comfortable in their comfort zones but that go-go bosses can be alienating.

One key to striking an effective balance, as I’ve written before, is  as simple (and difficult) as listening to staff concerns, especially as big changes are coming. That can be difficult because those situations are often fraught with conflict. But author and consultant Mark Goulston, writing at the <em>Harvard Business Review</em> recently suggested that a “sincere, earnest, unsolicited apology” may help. This isn’t the fall-on-your-sword apology that weakens your standing, but more an admission that there is a conflict, and that hearing the other person out can help defuse it.

(And if that still feels too squishy for your leadership style, consider Goulston’s point that an apology tends to nudge a person to rise to your level: “Owning up to and taking responsibility for negative thoughts and feelings they have towards you is ,,, disarming,” he writes.)

Listening, practically by definition, lets you hear new ideas, and much of what keeps employees interested in coming to work is being able to share those ideas. Writing at Lifehack, executive coach and speaker Ricky Nowak stressed that while CEOs need to run the show, it runs more smoothly when staff feels comfortable expressing themselves: “Even if some level of oversight must be maintained, employees should be given as much freedom as possible to work towards achieving set goals using their own methods and should be encouraged to do so,” she writes.

Association speaker and consultant Jamie Notter echoed that point in a blog post last week about the importance of cultivating a culture of authenticity. The benefits, Notter writes,  comes in “having people that work really hard because they love their job so much” and “people who have real ownership and get things done without waiting for permission.”

Every CEO will have to decide what level of openness they’re comfortable with and that works best for their organization. But if you’re hoping to avoid the time-consuming and emotionally exhausting business of dealing with staff turnover, more openness may be just what’s needed.

How have you helped lead staff through major changes? What tactics work best? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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