Change is hard!  We know from neuroscience that people like certainty so change is unsettling.  One of the roles of any leader is to help their employees cope with change.

Over quite a few years, I ran a “Solutions Focus Coaching for Leaders” programme with an NHS Trust.

Like most organisations, the Trust has been going through – and continues to go through – a continuing programme of change.  The leaders themselves have struggled with the confusion associated with such changes and the added challenge of helping employees cope with change and uncertainty.

Change and transition

As William Bridges highlighted in his 2008 book “Transitions”, there is an important distinction between change and transition.

Change’ is situational for example relocation, reorganisation, redundancies.

‘Transition’ is psychological and there are typically 3 phases that people go through, as they adjust to the new situation.

Those phases are:

1.  ‘Ending, Losing, Letting Go’ – letting go of the way things were and how people identified with it

2.  ‘The Neutral Zone’ – an ‘in-between’ time, when the ‘old’ is gone, but the ‘new’ is not fully functional

3.  ‘The Beginning’ – coming out of the transition, making a beginning, with a renewed sense of purpose that makes the change work

If a change in an organisation is going to be successful, it’s important to help employees manage the transition through the three phases.  Unfortunately, continuous change within organisations means we’re spending a lot of time in the neutral zone, and it’s this ‘in-between place’ that creates most apprehension.

Helping employees cope with change

Here are 5 techniques for helping employees cope with this change and uncertainty and instil a sense of hope.

1.  Recognise that it’s a difficult time and encourage employees to think about what “surviving well” would look like.  

How would they know that they had come through it as well as they would like?

2.  Focus on what they can influence. 

One reason change causes such fear and anxiety is the feeling that you have no control or influence over the result.

Managers can help employees through this by getting concerns out in the open and discussing which they can influence and should, therefore, focus on and which they can’t influence and should, therefore, let go of and not waste energy on.

3.  Focus on what they do have, rather than what they don’t.

What are they already doing to manage as well as they are?

What steps have they taken to look after their health and well-being through this difficult time?

What has helped them cope with change and difficult times in the past?

4.  Recognise and value their hard work and resilience during ‘tough times’.

It can be especially hard for managers who are also going through change and might not be getting much support.  But give your employees genuine, positive feedback on what you’re impressed with about them.

It’s also helpful to note the personal techniques they have used over the past few weeks and months that have helped them to manage as well as they have.  It’s a powerful way of helping employees feel more empowered.

5.  Identify steps they can take that will make a difference.

By highlighting all the actions they have taken so far and all the resources they have available, employees will be able to identify small steps they can take immediately to make further progress.

Leave employees to cope with change and uncertainty alone and they are likely to become paralysed by anxiety and increasingly demoralised.  Use these strategies and it will help them see beyond their immediate limits, focus on what they can do and keep perspective, all of which instils a sense of hope and optimism.