Change is good…you go first

How to lead employees through it

“It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and find no one there.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As a leader, your actions have a direct impact on any organizational change initiatives. Often, leaders focus their attention on the rationale for change, the logistics of the process and the implementation. And yet, what can make the biggest difference to ensure success is the way people within the organization respond.

How you sponsor, communicate, model and lead change has a direct impact on success. Your style, decisions and actions all have an effect.

All change has a corresponding loss and people need support to move through the stages of grief that come with any loss. Our emotions drive behavior. Often, a leader will attempt to meet emotion with logic. Most often, that strategy does not work, and can potentially invite deeper levels of resentment and resistance, anger, resentment, frustration, etc.

And so, if logic doesn’t work? What are we to do?

I remember my father’s mantra: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Wherever your employees are in the process, meet them where they are. Demonstrate empathy; offer appreciation for the challenges they are facing.

William Bridges, author of “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” shares with us his wisdom about the human dynamics of change. “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”

Bridges describes three phases of transition: the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning.

Within those phases, Bridges identifies the stages of loss, the corresponding behaviors and the recommended response from leaders. There is no foolproof method for managing the transitions through change, yet to have an awareness about what may be helpful is valuable learning for us.

The stages of loss/grief we experience during change are: denial, resistance, exploration and commitment.

Let’s review what behaviors or messages we may recognize as someone lives into the change.


“This cannot be happening.” “It won’t really impact my area.” “What are they thinking?” “How can they be talking about cutbacks and new building at the same time?”

We may see: apathy, shutdown, pessimism.

Leader’s response: Empathy and… information, information, information. It is suggested that we need to be given the same information seven times before we can hear it. It is important to communicate through different channels: media, group meetings and one-on-one conversations.

Meet one-on-one.

Empathy and questions: “How are you?” “What do you need to move forward?” “What do you need from me?”


Behaviors we may see: avoidance, ignoring, expressions of anger, frustration, back-biting, etc.

Leader’s response: Empathy and… listening.

Meet with team members, staff, one-on-one.

Empathy and questions: Acknowledge feelings: “I know this is hard. I can see your frustration, anger, etc.” Followed by: “What do you need to move forward?” “What do you need from me?” “How can I best support you?”


Behaviors we are likely to see: Employee making suggestions; beginning to wonder: “What’s in it for me?” Asking more questions. Exhibiting more energy and hope.

Leader’s response: Communicate appreciation. Begin to set short-term goals. Meet with teams.

Ask: “How are you?” “What do you need?” “What do you need from me?”


During this stage there is more energy, acceptance and receptivity. Team members are expressing enthusiasm for what is possible. There is more encouragement and support of one another.

Leader’s response: Communicate appreciation. Begin to consider long-term goals. Encourage teamwork.

Celebrate… It is important to celebrate each milestone in the process of change.

And again, we will ask: “How are you?” “What do you need from me?”   

Whether change is necessary because of possibility or because of challenge, it still arrives with loss. So much more is possible when we are willing, as leaders, to support our teams in their experience of loss, even as we experience our own.

After change review

Once the change has been integrated, investing time in the organization to assess the process, communication, support, etc. will be a valuable exercise. It will help the organization prepare for the next change that will be needed…because the next change is just around the corner!

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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