Tips for Conquering the Whiplash of Change

The dust had finally settled on the company’s latest Return to Office policy. Although it took a lot of cajoling, after a six-month grace period, most employees were back in the office the mandated three days a week.

People seemed mostly happy being back together in the same place, making meaningful connections with those they’d never met in person or reconnecting with those they’d lost touch with. Team learning activities and all-hands meetings were bringing people together for important conversations. The cafeteria was abuzz with people gathering at tables instead of sitting at their desks. Newly-hired employees felt more at home. For many, their long commutes were almost worth it.

With most people finally getting back into the groove of working onsite, senior leaders dropped this bombshell late on a Friday afternoon, a day almost everyone worked remotely:

 “Effective next week, we will be re-organizing to maximize efficiencies and streamline operations. Please plan to attend the All-Hands meeting on Monday morning to hear important details. Rest assured that we do not expect to lay anyone off as a result at this time.”

Wait, what??!! It wasn’t just the timing or the wording of this announcement that made people anxious and furious: It was the fact that management felt compelled to push yet another change on employees whose work lives had so recently been turned upside down, apparently without input from employees.

“What were they thinking?” people were asking. “Don’t they realize how disruptive these changes are? Why would they think this is okay with all of the stress we’ve been suffering through if they claim to value us so much?”

Great questions. In this edition, I’ll explore why so many leaders keep barreling ahead with disruptive changes, how they can be more circumspect about which changes need to be made, and how to increase the likelihood that employees will accept (and maybe even embrace) the changes that unfold.

Why do so many leaders seem addicted to change?

  • Impatience, for one thing. When they don’t see instant results from prior changes, they panic and try something new, rather than asking themselves questions like: What evidence led us to believe the previous change would deliver the desired results? What evidence do we have that supports the need for this latest change? Who will be most affected by the change, and what are the implications? Are the hoped-for benefits worth the likely disruption and ill-will? Do we need to make this change now, or ever?
  • They don’t know better. Relatively few management development training learning programs focus on change leadership skills. Plus, many managers believe that implementing this change is not an option, so they don’t even bother pushing back.
  • Because they can.  Whether they’re new to the organization, or bored with the status quo, many leaders have the urge to shake things up because that’s what they think leaders do.
  • They don’t understand the traumatic effects that constant change can have on employees. In the words of employees, change can be soul-sucking, exhausting and terrifying. Change after change takes a real hit on morale, productivity, and cohesion.

Why is it so hard getting people to buy into change?

  • They’re sick of it. Change fatigue is real. Our minds and bodies have a hard time absorbing and sustaining one change after another.
  • Many change initiatives have proven to be little more than smoke and mirrors, and employees know it. Why bother to go along with the latest change when a change de jour is just around the corner?
  • They’re skeptical about the motives. They want to know who’s behind it, and why? How was the decision made? By whom? Whose input was considered? Who stands to gain or lose?
  • When there’s no context or credible rationale for change, people are likely to either tune out, ignore it or actively resist, bringing other naysayers along with them. If their direct supervisors can’t make a credible case for change, people are more likely to fight it.
  • Without a roadmap or process for change that makes sense to everyone, people have a hard time embracing something they can’t visualize.

Can we please just slow it down?

  • Consider which changes are really needed, at what point, and why. Is this change a nice-to-have, or an absolute business necessity? Can this change wait until other changes have been absorbed? Can this be rolled out in phases?
  • Is there a well-reasoned defense for this proposed change, other than “change is good” or a similar platitude? Test-run your messaging to see if the change is likely to make sense to those who have to live with the results.
  • Ask people from affected groups what this change will mean for employees, clients, partners, business associates, etc. Will most be receptive, indifferent or upset? Can they suggest other ways to achieve the same goals?
  • Assess whether the hoped-for benefits are likely to outweigh the risks. Will reducing the scope or delaying the change make it easier to accept?

How can managers help ease the transition?

  • Communicate in a way that makes it safe for people to comment, ask questions, express concerns or offer ideas. Ideally, these two-way communications will take place at all levels of the organization, positioning direct managers as chief communicators. Make sure employees hear about it from their managers first in an interactive session before the get a mass email from the C-Level.
  • Explain why this change is needed, using clear, simple language. Avoid bland platitudes that ring hollow. Talk about options that were considered, trade-offs made, and risks assessed. Show how this change will help support your organization’s mission.
  • Acknowledge the impact this change will have, on whom, when and how. If it’s a big change that will cause disruption and chaos, don’t sugarcoat it. Empathize with those whose transitions are likely to be the toughest. Explain what resources can support the transition, which may take the form of coaching, skills development, job shadowing and more.
  • Share a roadmap, or process, for this change. When does it start? Who’s involved and when? What are the key milestones? When and how will we know we’ve achieved the desired outcomes? How does this integrate with other change efforts in the company?
  • Make it easy for employees to offer guidance. For example, you might ask cross-functional groups to brainstorm ideas for implementation from a variety of perspectives and modify your plans accordingly.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If layoffs are likely as a result of this change, don’t assure everyone they will have jobs. If more big changes lurk ahead, don’t guarantee that this is the end of the change cycle. Do ask people to note what’s working, what’s not, and what lessons learned your organization can use for the next big change.

If you can choose whether to implement that Big Change now, later (or maybe never), err on the side of slowing down, especially if your team is still in the throes of yet another transition. If you have little choice, get out ahead of the rumors with clear, candid, and credible messaging that states why this change is needed, the impact this change will likely have, and how, exactly, you plan to support them.


Articles and tip sheets from Guided Insights:

Other articles:

Wondering how I can help?

Let’s schedule a 30-minute meeting so we can explore how to work together to address your most pressing challenges.

Find Articles

Recent Posts


Sign Up Today to Get Free Tips for Creating a Level Playing Field Across Your Virtual, Hybrid Team