Skip to content
May 2, 2024

Leading Through Change in the Workplace: Key Strategies to Use Today

Leading through change

There’s a reason the phrase “change fatigue” has become so common among employees and leaders today. The complexities of the business environment mean change is one thing most employees can expect, whether they like it or not. Changes in strategy, restructuring, layoffs, the prevalence of mergers and acquisitions, people, and workplace culture issues – the list goes on and on.

Naturally, all that change can feel overwhelming for employees and their supervisors. Our recent research conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll underscores this, as many employees and managers we surveyed identified constant change as a primary contributor to mounting burnout levels.

Yet the pace of change doesn’t have to feel so overwhelming. Working with leaders on the frontlines of change for decades, we’ve learned some of the most important pitfalls to avoid and the keys to success. We’ll share many of those insights here, helping leaders and communicators across industries understand how best to lead through change with positive and proven approaches.

What Exactly Does it Mean to Lead Through Change?

Leading through change is the ability to apply proven leadership practices to help employees view change as a necessary and essential part of business in today’s complex business environment. A key to success is a leadership style that meets people where they are, gives employees opportunities for input and engagement in the process, and promotes a change journey that feels achievable and rewarding.

Why Is Leading through Change So Important?

If you spend time with managers these days, you’ll notice one theme quite quickly: they’re overwhelmed.

Our recent comprehensive research with The Harris Poll identified widespread burnout and ambivalence inside organizations today. Constant change makes the challenge even more acute. Some of the top findings from our research include:

  • 76% of employees and 63% of managers report feeling burned out or ambivalent in their current position.
  • Constant change is the top reported indicator of burnout, along with unnecessary work and shifts in focus, respectively. The cost of this is decreased engagement and high employee turnover rates.
  • Managers and leaders have a big impact on employees’ ability to thrive. A manager “invested in their success” is the top driver for thriving employees.

The research found that in order to thrive, employees need to feel that their manager is effectively guiding them through change and other workplace challenges. The list of what thriving employees appreciate most is a checklist for managers to make change feel less overwhelming.

Thriving employees strongly agreed with the following:

  • My manager is clearly invested in my success – 61%
  • My manager is empathetic – 57%
  • Senior leadership respects the boundaries of work/life – 56%
  • Senior leadership provides clear direction – 54%
  • Senior leadership is approachable and accessible – 53%
  • Communication from leadership is clear and authentic – 53%

The research shows that employees and managers know what they need to thrive even in the midst of a lot of change, and it’s all about personal investment from leaders, empathy, and authentic communication.

There’s also a clear signal that managers want their senior leaders to translate better how they fit in and help them feel part of something bigger. Given that we’re living in a “permacrisis” in business and the world, managers face increasing demands for productivity and results, often with fewer resources and smaller teams, and they need more support.

That point is abundantly clear when you consider what thriving managers say they need from senior leaders.

Thriving managers in our study strongly agreed with the following:

  • My manager does a good job translating business strategy into the work I do – 65%
  • Communication from senior leadership is clear and authentic – 63%
  • My manager is clearly invested in my success – 62%
  • Senior leadership provides clear direction – 62%
  • Senior leadership is approachable/accessible – 60%
  • Senior leadership empowers employees – 60%

Mounting Research Supports Leading Through Change as a Key Priority

In addition to our recent polls, many researchers have been sounding the alarm about the need to strengthen leadership skills in managing change. Experts are finding that managers are unprepared to effectively communicate complex and sensitive topics, including marketplace context, business performance, culture gaps, and the reason behind certain new programs.

Here are just a few examples from recent studies:

1. Better trained and skilled managers have been shown to make a major impact.

In Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, Gallup CEO Jon Clifton noted that building the capabilities of managers is one of the key ways to build better workplaces. “The real fix is this simple: better leaders in the workplace. Managers need to be better listeners, coaches, and collaborators. Great managers help colleagues learn and grow, recognize their colleagues for doing great work, and make them feel truly cared about. In environments like this, workers thrive.”

2. A growing number of managers report needing more support to do their jobs better, and communication-related skills are often considered a top need.

In a 2022 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Managers Can’t Do It All,” Diane Gherson, the recently retired chief human resources officer for IBM, and Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor, reported that most managers are struggling to keep up. The challenges they confront are wide-ranging, including digitization, agile initiatives, and the move to remote work, to name a few.

“We have closely observed the changing job of the manager, and we can report that a crisis is looming,” Gherson and Gratton wrote. “The signs are everywhere. In 2021, when we asked executives from 60 companies around the world how their managers were doing, we got unanimous reports of frustration and exhaustion.”

3. HR leaders express concerns about burned-out managers.

A recent report from the research firm Gartner asked 75 HR leaders from companies worldwide how their managers were faring. Gartner said 68% of HR leaders reported that their managers were overwhelmed. Leaders also said that the number of workers reporting to them has skyrocketed, making it harder to provide closer personal attention. 

So what’s the solution for manager burnout? The 60 executives that Gratton and Gherson surveyed identified “coaching, communication, and employee well-being” as the most important areas to focus on with managers today.

8 Critical Steps for Leading a Team Through Change

As is often the case, crisis motivates rapid change. We saw that through the pandemic, some teams were implementing change programs in six months, which would normally take several years. Still, not all those changes were handled correctly, with some organizations reporting lingering burnout levels that surfaced during the pandemic and have yet to subside.

Here are the eight essentials in the change process that, when prioritized and streamlined, can help smooth the path to change:

Step 1: Emphasize relationship building

As we’ve seen through our own research and experience, leaders often forget to be human as they lead. In the rush for results, they lose perspective and stop working on building a genuine connection with their employees. Yet when employees feel their manager is clearly invested in their success, they’re far more likely to feel engaged and excited about their work. That relationship also helps them accept and work through change because they’re less anxious, feeling their manager has their back along the way.

Step 2: Build alignment

An organization can move through change more quickly if the leadership team is informed, aligned with the planned changes, and ready to take responsibility for bringing employees along. This starts with a committed executive sponsor who actively and visibly advocates for the change. Once senior leaders are aligned in support of a change, leaders at all levels must be equipped and accountable for explaining it to employees and helping interpret what it means to them.

Step 3: Create a compelling case for change

Too often, leaders fail to explain what’s often described as the “burning platform” – the reason the change is being implemented. A mound of research points to the fact that the case for change must be clear in order for employees to accept it. Leaders need to take the time to present clear data and a thoughtful rationale. Otherwise, employees will feel like change is just happening for the sake of change. The potential for burnout will escalate, and retention issues are also likely.

Clear and thoughtful communication is critical as part of building the case for change. We often refer to this as building the case for change “narrative.” That narrative should explain the change story at a high level and include appropriate detail on the future state the company is looking to create, and should address the most common questions that leaders and employees may have.

Step 4: Establish a clear vision and course of action

Everyone in the organization must understand the vision for the future and how their work helps achieve it. A clear vision statement and a high-level roadmap of key steps needed to attain the vision give leaders what they need to explain the path forward and outline what actions employees can take to advance the change.

Step 5: Prioritize transparent and consistent communication

A well-planned cadence of communication that delivers consistent information across the organization is essential to gaining employee support and adoption for any change. People look to their leaders for clarity and candor about what is happening when, and what it means to them. The change communication strategy should include tools and training to ensure leaders are clear on the change's goals, process, and plans and clearly articulate their responsibilities for communicating with their teams.

Step 6: Commit to consistent listening and responding to employee needs

Managing the “people side of change” means ensuring that change plans aren’t imposed on employees from the top, with little opportunity for input. Leaders need to help employees understand what is changing and commit to using their input to improve the planned approach. Major changes can’t just be announced and ignored, with little opportunity for questions and dialogue on how to make the changes happen.

Most importantly, leaders should demonstrate that employees are valued and cared for by answering their questions, listening to their feedback and concerns, acknowledging their challenges and providing the support and training they need to be successful.

Step 7: Recognize and celebrate successes, large and small

When people are asked to do things differently and adopt to a “new normal,” recognition of their efforts and reinforcement of the new ways of working are critical to motivating employees and sustaining the change. Change and communication strategies should include ways for leaders and peers to acknowledge successes and provide kudos to colleagues, as well as share examples of how people who have adopted new ways of working are achieving the organization’s goals.

Step 8: Be patient and understanding

New ways of working often require time to take hold. Leaders need to understand some employees may be quicker to adapt than others, and that’s just a natural part of the process. It’s often helpful to have a group of change “ambassadors,” people who are especially skilled at connecting and bringing the team together and supporting those who have questions or need additional help.

Proven Manager Tips for Communicating Change

In working with teams across industries, we’ve seen leaders make big strides in managing through change by focusing on these six key manager communication skills. These strategies, especially when combined as an overall strategic practice, help build far better manager/employee relationships and stronger business outcomes in the midst of change.

1. Listen better and check for understanding

To make communication effective, leaders need to learn what’s working well, what’s not, and most importantly, how things can be better. That involves listening – and listening some more.

Leaders should ask broad, probing, open-ended questions, which allow the listener to take the conversation in a direction they choose, such as:

  • “Help me understand…”
  • “How do you envision…”
  • “What other strategic alternative did you consider?”

Leaders should consistently ask employees for feedback and also consider:

  • What environment employees would be most comfortable sharing input (feedback channels can be informal or formal)
  • The leader’s personal motivation for getting feedback (and how to share that with employees)
  • How best to engage people fully and truly listen to what they have to say

2. Create a shared vision for the entire team

Every employee comes into the workplace with his or her own context, a mixture of culture, memories, upbringing, and experiences. Part of the role of a manager is to create a shared vision for the entire team. Managers should ensure employees understand the big picture and how they fit in. They need to constantly communicate the “why” behind the business plan: why the plan is important, the role the team plays, and the critical contribution that each employee can make to the team’s success.

Every time a manager communicates with an employee, they should answer these questions that all employees naturally have: 

  • What’s my job?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Why should I care?

Leaders need to link what’s happening at the larger organization to their department in real time and make it a point to talk about how employees’ work relates to the company’s success. When managers fail to set context and paint the larger picture, they contribute to the silo mentality, one in which employees can’t see why their individual contributions matter.

One of the smartest ways to equip leaders with these skills is to create a “leader toolkit” and a frequently asked questions (FAQs) document, which gives leaders a quick reference point for the key messages related to any major new initiative or strategic direction. The toolkits can be rolled out through a “just in time” training session, in which top leaders either facilitate or are available for questions. Another option is to release the toolkit as a simple presentation that’s distributed to all leaders, preferably launched with a CEO note or conference call for reinforcement.

These resources are important to helping leaders understand and internalize what’s happening and feel prepared and confident in how to talk about it with their teams.

Here’s a sample outline for a leader toolkit on a new strategy to achieve a more engaged and productive workforce in the midst of a challenging business environment:

  • Letter from the CEO: Briefly explains the context for the strategy change, touches on the why and “what’s in it for employees” message
  • Our Strategy: Brief summary of the new strategy in the context of the business environment and challenges
  • Our Vision: Brief description of how the strategy ties to the company vision
  • What We’ll Achieve with the Strategy: Paints the big picture of what the outcome is intended to be, how the strategy will make the overall employee culture stronger, more powerful, and rewarding
  • Key Actions: Brief summary of what’s being done, often just three or four bullet points on what specifically is about to happen
  • How We’ll Win: Brief explainer on how top leadership (with the managers’ support) plans to make the change happen, with a timeline of what to expect in the coming weeks, months, and further into the future
  • Your Role: Brief description of what managers can do to make the strategy happen, including daily actions they can take. This is often followed with talking points that the managers can then relay to their teams on what they, as leaders, hope to see individual employees do differently to support the strategy’s success

3. Repeat important messages

One common communication mistake managers make is the “check-off-the-box” mentality. People see communication as a one-time event. They say things like, “I sent out an e-mail” or “I already communicated that.”

Research shows that many of us need to hear a message multiple times before we get it. Communication isn’t something you can check off a to-do list. Managers build trust and credibility through consistent messaging across multiple touchpoints. When employees hear the same message repeated, they’re more likely to take notice, believe it, and most importantly, act on it.

4. Create dialogue and check for understanding

Every time managers communicate, there’s an opportunity to find out if their employees get what they’re saying. The job isn’t done when the message is sent. It’s important for managers to make sure the message is really heard and understood. Building opportunities for questions and dialogue into a leader’s communication helps measure in real-time how well employees receive their messages, and whether more communication is needed.

Some key questions for leaders to ask include:

  • “What challenges and opportunities do you see with what I’ve just explained?”
  • “What are your key takeaways from the information I just shared?”
  • “What other questions or concerns do you have about this direction?”

One important way for managers or people leaders to know if they’ve been understood is to open themselves up for “Ask Me Anything” sessions, during which employees are encouraged to ask frank questions about anything that’s going on with the business or other key topics on their minds. Sometimes these sessions can feel intimidating for leaders, but we’ve found them to be a great way for leaders to share their authentic selves and build trust with their teams. We often help leaders prepare for these sessions by putting together a frequently asked questions document and suggested responses so leaders have a better sense of what may be on employees’ minds.

5. Create regular opportunities for personal connections

With teams spread out across regions and countries, and so many people working remotely or on a hybrid home/office schedule, managers find it even harder to build critical connections and moments of dialogue. This is one of the biggest pain points we hear from our clients in their work to build better communication skills in management.

To help address this, set time aside to connect personally with employees – ideally with a brief meeting once or twice a month whenever possible. In fact, Gallup finds the best new habit for managers is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in length. (Source)

If the team a manager oversees is too large for this, leaders can set up regular focus group sessions, inviting a different sampling of team members for each one. These sessions can go a long way toward establishing trust and more meaningful work relationships.

6. Use calls to action

As leaders communicate, it’s important to think about what actions they’re trying to drive. Communications should help move the audience to action. What do leaders want employees to do as a result of the communication?

Leaders should clearly communicate the actions wanted and be specific and give examples. Without a call to action, the leader’s message is just information.

Examples of Effective Calls to Action

  • Four key actions we can all take to be better colleagues:
    • Respond to customer or colleague emails or calls within 24 hours
    • Ask your teammates how you can help
    • Always meet or exceed customer or colleague deadlines (or let them know early when you’re facing a roadblock)
    • Propose creative solutions to challenges. Show positive leadership skills, no matter your role
  • What we need from you to achieve our vision:
    • Maintain our values
    • Do what’s right for our company; maintain our integrity no matter what
    • Leverage and share best practices
    • Put the customer first
    • Know how you can contribute to our growth strategy; take on an ownership mentality

It’s also helpful for managers to share with their teams what they will personally commit to as leaders to make the team successful. This demonstrates that the leader is fully invested in the employee’s success and sees the working relationship as a two-way street.

Examples of Effective Leadership During Change

Helping organizations move more effectively through change can be exciting because you can see how the right approach made all the difference in building a stronger and more effective culture.

Here’s two examples of organizations who handled change management effectively:

Example 1: Transitioning Employees to a New Standalone Company

A new CEO was coming into a company that had just been spun off from its founding company. The CEO wanted to build a strong voice and culture from day one, and wanted a new communications infrastructure to help support the new company.

The leader understood that he needed new communication channels to engage leaders during a time of transition so he worked to revamp the company intranet so it could be the primary source of information for all news including the primary source for all the new health plan and benefits details.

Further, the leader understood that more intense listening to the new team needed to be a top priority. Employees were brought in for input and help in co-creating the new organization’s strategy, which gave them a tremendous sense of buy-in and empowerment. After a robust dialogue over several months, the employees felt energized and respected, knowing that their input influenced the final strategy and tactics for the new organization.

Example 2: Aligning Top Leadership to Promote Change

A new leader inside a major consumer goods manufacturer was feeling time pressure to produce tangible results toward the company’s new strategic goals, yet wanted to ensure that the top leaders inside his function felt part of the change process from the start.

Just weeks into his leadership, the new leader decided to bring together more than 150 leaders over the course of online and in-person strategy sessions. In the end, more than 500 ideas were proposed, informing the strategy and giving a voice to leaders who were traditionally NOT brought into the strategy development process despite being closest to customers and teams.

The leadership team's response was extremely positive. When the strategy was rolled out, they felt more invested and ready to share it with their teams. In a follow-up survey, 90% of the leaders involved in the process agreed that substantial input was gathered in developing the strategy, and 99% said they understood the strategy and path forward.

How We Can Help

We partner with clients to maximize the benefits of change and bring employees along on the journey to accelerate business results. We’ll work with you to share the vision for what can be and prepare you to inspire your teams to make that vision a reality.

We support leaders during critical periods of transformation, from developing a new strategy or brand, mergers and acquisitions, and organization restructures to new CEO and executive leadership changes, digital transformations, and more.

If you’re looking for a partner to supplement your team and help you make an impact fast, contact us today. We’d be happy to learn how we can support you and leverage our experience on your behalf.

The Bottom Line

Change fatigue is a very real problem for businesses and employees today. Research and our own experience tell us that many employees feel burnt out by change.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. When leaders work a smart process of communicating change effectively, gaining alignment, building the case for change, and truly listening to employee questions, feedback, and concerns, change starts to feel a lot less daunting and instead like an exciting opportunity. When that happens, leaders help their teams see change for what it is – a necessary part of any organization’s natural growth and success.

How might you use these key strategies to successfully lead your organization through change?

—David Grossman

Our new research, conducted with The Harris Poll, proves widespread burnout is real. Download the report, Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive, to uncover the biggest drivers of burnout, and how to build a thriving culture.

White Paper - Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive

Comments on this post

Other posts you might be interested in

View All Posts