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Leading Positively Through Change

By Tasha Broomhall

Managing and leading positively through change is not simply about leaders communicating with employees the WHO, WHAT and WHEN of organisational change processes. Positive leadership requires acceptance and understanding of the emotional needs of individuals and groups during such times. Positive leadership should assist employees to:

  1. understand how the change and associated processes are aligned with the organisation’s values
  2. understand and accept different emotional responses to change
  3. help individuals to develop strategies to manage stress proactively
  4. help individuals to improve positive mental wellbeing
  5. develop strategies to build and enhance effective relationships and supports within the organisation
  1. Aligned with Values

Values based leadership is not only important during times of organisational change. It is important in creating a positive workplace culture ongoing. However, during times of change, leaders should aim to articulate the rationale, the decision making process and the determined actions, based on the organisation’s values. This requires that leaders themselves are first able to articulate what the values are.

  1. Model of responses to change

The above figure outlines possible emotional reactions to change. As leaders we often try to respond to people who are having an emotional response by using rational strategies, but this can simply increase negative emotions and detachment.

We need to understand that through times of change, our experiences will be different – we will progress through the change reaction curve at different paces.An important element of leading others through change is having self-awareness and self-leadership. Know where you are on the curve and resource yourself with appropriate supports to help you.

One strategy suggested by Leahy and Chamberlain is to describe these possible reactions to change to employees, inviting them to reflect on where they are in the reaction cycle, and to discuss how they can get their own needs met, as well as support others.

  1. Strategies to Manage Stress

In her famous TED talk on stress, psychologist Kelly McGonigal describes that instead of trying to calm your pounding heart during times of stress, you should rather view the stress reaction as your body getting ready for the challenge. This will give you the energy to deal with the issues at hand. Your pounding heart is preparing you for action and your faster breathing is allowing more oxygen to your brain so that you can think more clearly. McGonigal determines that how you think about stress matters.

Harvard University conducted a study that asked one group of participants to rethink their body’s response to stress. The group that reframed their stress responses positively, had far less of a negative effect from their stressful situations.

We recognise that many employees react to change with stress responses; uncertainty and change can elicit these responses. However, we can encourage people to engage positively with proactive stress management strategies rather than becoming overwhelmed by their stress.

Decci and Ryan identified a stress management model with three components that they believe affect our motivation and performance in different settings. These components are competency, control and belonging.

  1. Competency
    We need to feel that we are competent and that we have the skills and tools required to do our job. We don’t like to feel as if we are in over our heads.
  1. Control
    We need to feel that we have a choice and some autonomy over the way in which we go about our lives. A core factor is that we often don’t like change. As Mark Twain said, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” And even then, it is not really the process of change that the baby likes, it is the result, right?
  1. Belonging
    We need to feel that we belong and that we are accepted, valued, respected and cherished by someone or some group. We are social creatures so it is not only about being part of a group – but, importantly, we want to feel that we are a valued member of the group, contributing in a meaningful way.

You can use these three components to:

  1. Think about a situation that causes you stress.
  2. Consider what the core issue is that is triggering the stress.
  3. Determine possible strategies to alleviate the stress in that area.

If an employee is experiencing a high stress response that is causing distress or that is impacting on their functioning or wellbeing, then it is advisable to seek specific individual support from your EAP provider.

  1. Positive Mental Wellbeing

Shawn Achor conducted a program with KPMG employees in the stressful lead up to tax time. The employees were instructed to choose one out of five activities that correlate with positive change to personal wellbeing:

  1. Jot down three things they were grateful for.
  2. Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.
  3. Meditate at their desk for two minutes.
  4. Exercise for 10 minutes.
  5. Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

The participants performed their chosen activity daily for three weeks. Several days later, both the participants and a control group were evaluated to determine their general sense of wellbeing. On every metric, the experimental group’s scores were significantly higher than the control groups.

Months later, both groups were once again tested, and the experimental group still showed significantly higher scores in optimism and life satisfaction.

Just one simple exercise a day greatly improved the employees’ wellbeing. Happiness became habitual. Helping your employees to access resilience and positive wellbeing skills can be a positive step in assisting them to manage their mental wellbeing proactively.

  1. Effective Relationships and Supports

Achor, Ben-Shahar and Stone determined that social support was the highest predictor of happiness during high periods of stress. Their research suggests that support received is important, but that support given is an even more important factor in sustained engagement and happiness.

Leaders should consider the following:

  • How can you increase supports and model this for others?
  • How can you increase supports for each other and increase a sense of belonging and connectedness within your team and to the broader organisation?


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