Leading through change is a particularly difficult assignment. You’re expected to mobilize your team while you’re struggling to master yourself. This month, I’m conducting sessions with the leaders in a large multi-national company to help them cope with their own reactions to a major organizational transformation, to better position them to cascade the change to their teams. I’m going to share my advice with you, starting with step one: take time to reflect.

In my experience, leaders are too quick to jump into action and spend insufficient time reflecting on their own reactions to change. This sets them up to be saying one thing while believing another—a deadly combo that erodes trust and stalls change efforts. Make the time to reflect.

What do I mean by “reflect?”

Reflectis probably an over-used word at this point; one that sounds fluffy and the domain of the purple-aura people. I thought about using “think”’ instead, but that’s too broad. For me, reflecting is thinkingabout yourself. You can reflect literally by thinking about what other people see when they look at you. You can also reflect on what’s going on beneath the surface in your thoughts or your emotional state. For our purposes, let’s talk about reflecting as taking time to think about your current state.

It’s also worth defining “time.” Reflecting doesn’t require a trip to a yoga retreat in the mountains. As a leader, the most valuable reflections are often split-second moments of self-awareness within your daily activities. While sitting in a meeting, you notice that you’re slouched in your chair looking exhausted and defeated. Half-way through your commute home you realize that you’re struggling with one aspect of the change your organization is implementing. Some of the most valuable reflections come in an instant if you’re open to noticing them.

Why is Reflection so Important?

When you are leading others through change, it’s critical that you’reaware of your current state because everyone else is. During upheaval, your team is looking to you for cues about whether they are safe, whether the change is good or bad, and just how nervous they should be. It’s much like when a child encounters an unfamiliar situation and immediately looks to a parent for reassurance. If you aren’t aware of what’s showing on your face, you aren’t aware of what you’re communicating to your team.

What to Reflect On?

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to gauge your reactions to a change.

What am I thinking? Start with the easiest level to access: what you’re thinking about the change. As of right now, which aspects of the change do you agree with? Which seem like bad ideas? What supporting evidence is compelling to you and what other justifications are you discounting? What questions are emerging for you and how might you get them answered? Where are you making assumptions? On which issues is your thinking biased? Answering these questions will put you in touch with the narrative you’re creating about the change.

What am I feeling? Once you are more aware of what you’re thinking about the change, tune in to how you’re feeling about it. What emotions are you experiencing? What is your body telling you about how you feel? Are there clues that you’re reacting negatively such as sweaty palms, a racing heart, a scrunched-up face, or clenched fists? Are you ambivalent, wrestling with emotions across the spectrum? If you notice that you’re having a strong emotional reaction, you know that you have work to do to understand the source of that reaction, which leads us to the next stage…

What do I believe? If you notice a strong emotional reaction, it’s likely because you’re interpreting the change in a way that conflicts with what you value or what you believe. For each emotion you can identify, ask yourself where that emotion is coming from. What is it about for you? Where is the rub? What is the change triggering? How did those beliefs and assumptions evolve? Are your beliefs still serving you or is it time to let them go? Answering these questions will lead you back to a reflection on how you’re thinking about the change. It’s useful to iterate on these questions.

What am I saying? Once you’re more aware of what’s going on inside your head, start to become more aware of what you’re sharing publicly. What are you saying about the change to your team? What words are you using and what do they convey about your attitudes? What are you choosing to share and what are you leaving out of your communications? It’s easy to reopen a few sent emails to check on this. It’s a little more difficult to monitor your in-person communications—but not impossible.

What am I showing? The last thing to reflect on is what you’re showing to the world. Regardless of what you’re saying, how are you saying it? What is your tone? What is your body conveying beyond what’s conveyed by your words? If there was a mirror you could look into right now, what would you see? How congruent are your words and your actions? Ultimately, as a leader that is one of the most important questions.

Reflecting gives you the opportunity to evaluate what you’re saying and what you’re showing. It allows you to come to terms with the source of those words and actions—your thoughts, your feelings, and your beliefs. Being clear about those things gives you the best opportunity to be deliberate and in control as you lead your team through change.

More on this in my next post as I delve into what to do if your values don’t align with the change.

Read the Whole Series

Leading Through Change Part 2: Reframing

Leading Through Change Part 3: Resilience

Further Reading

How Self-aware are You?

4 Things Your Team Isn’t Telling You

Dealing with Change That’s Hard to Swallow