Leadership Through Transitions

March 10, 2015


Anxiety runs high during periods of whitewater –people get anxious and leaders want to reassure.   When leaders work to steady the waters it is important to remember that a number of reassuring strategies can have negative middle and long term outcomes.  Consider the following strategies.
First, avoid being specific in your assurances and about the future.  It’s natural for people to look for terra firma while in white water – and yet they will lose trust if it is expected and doesn’t show up. Rather,
Be directional in your assurances and in your predictions (e.g., ‘we’re headed this way and not that‘ or ‘we’re moving toward service lines being ever more important’).


Communicate carefully about what you predict will be true in 6, 12 or 24  months as those statements will more likely prove untrue than statements about direction.  Moments of ‘but you said we’d never have to switch to that system‘ lead to greater anxiety and to damage your working relationship with your reports as can well intentioned statements like ‘don’t worry, we’ll always have a department of….‘ or ‘of course, you’ll have your job‘.


I’ve written about direction truth in my book Your Job Survival Guide and have a video highlighting the importance of it as well.
If you can’t be clear about an outcome, then try to be clear about the process.    For example, ‘I don’t know what the organization chart will be, but senior leadership is in the midst of a study of the best organization for our strategy.  The study ends in 45 days and the new organization is due out in 60 days.’



left kayak

Change is Personal

Remember, change is personal.  It’s about individuals, their families, and their friends.
The WIIFM (Whats in it For Me) is both understandable and needs addressing.  Listen and guide where you can.  Don’t tell people that they shouldn’t worry or that they should just concern themselves with the good of the organization.  If you do, then the worries won’t go away; people will.  They will stop talking with you about themselves and you will lose contact with your people at the very time they (and you) need it.  ‘Change is good; you go first‘ is a tee shirt that captures the reality of personal risk.


One way to counteract increased anxiety is to provide more, shorter term goals.  If usually you review someone’s performance every 6 months, then make it every 3 months, every 3 months, then make it every month, and every month, then make it every week.  People benefit from knowing what is expected of them and how they are doing anyway and especially so when change abounds and they feel vulnerable.  The specificity allows them to channel their anxiety and do what they can to secure their value to their boss and to their organization and, thereby, employment.



At times of high anxiety, spend more time inside your unit with your direct reports.  As the saying goes, ‘when the shooting starts is no time to be in HQ‘.  People benefit from feeling that formal authority is present and that they, through that authority, are connected to the organization, i.e., not abandoned.  Find more time to MBWA (Manage by Walking Around).