Leading through change is a particularly difficult assignment. I’m conducting sessions to help leaders in a large multinational cope with their reactions to a major organizational transformation and I thought it would be valuable to share my advice with you. I started in the previous post talking about the importance of reflection. Today, I’m focused on the process of reframing.

What is Reframing?

By reframing, I mean identifying where you’re resisting elements of the change and choosing to see it differently. As a leader, coming to terms with a change that you don’t like or don’t agree with is critical for at least two reasons. First, carrying negative thoughts about a change (or about your manager, your leaders, or your company for implementing that change) makes you feel less engaged and makes your experience of work more negative. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend 40 hours a week feeling crappy about my job.

As a leader, there’s another critical reason why you need to work through any resistance you have to an organizational change. You have a couple of options when you disagree with a change and both are terrible. On the one hand, if you openly disagree with the change, you’ll be branded as a resistor, a laggard, and a poor leader. On the other hand, if you ignore your opposition to the change and communicate as if you were supportive, the incongruence between what you say and what your body language shows will erode trust and make you a less effective change leader. The costs to your relationships and your reputation of resisting a change either overtly or covertly are very high.

That’s why you need to do the work of reframing how you’re thinking about the change. Here’s how:

Reflect on your Reaction

This was the subject of my previous post. If you didn’t get a chance to read it and work through the 5 stages of reflection, go back there first.

Identify the Trigger

What specific aspect of the organization change is bothering you? Is it something about the nature of the change itself (your customer service won’t be as good, or the change will add additional bureaucracy) or is it something about the way the change was implemented (you weren’t asked for input, or you are expected to implement the change too quickly). Be as objective and accurate about what you don’t like as possible. Rather than thinking this implementation is too rushed think about the exact expectation, such as we have 6 weeks to implement this to 1,000 customers.

Clarify your Perception

Once you’ve thought as objectively as possible about the aspects of the change that are triggering your resistance, think through how you’re perceiving those issues. What are the subjective conclusions you’re drawing about the change. In the case of the 6-week implementation, you might be interpreting that as rushed. You might be thinking that the process will be sloppy and error-prone. Your resistance might be coming from your concern that you won’t be able to successfully get your team through the implementation that quickly. At this stage, it’s also helpful to consider what motives you’re ascribing to those who imposed the change. Are you interpreting their short timelines as evidence that your leaders are detached from what’s going on at the front-lines? Are you assuming that they are rushing the change to have their numbers look good for their year-end bonuses?

Link Perceptions to Values

Now you get to connect the dots. Something in the way you’re interpreting the change is causing resistance. That’s because you’re interpreting the change in a way that conflicts with your values and beliefs. You need to figure out the link, so you have a better sense of what’s really bothering you. If in the previous step you realized that you’re assuming your leaders are just trying to cut costs to look like heroes at year-end, it might be creating a rub because you hate the short-term thinking and believe great companies take short-term pain for long-term gain. Regardless of what the issue is, explore the territory around your resistance using the following prompts:

  • What is this really about for me?
  • What’s bothering me?
  • What am I afraid of with this change?
  • How am I imaging this playing out?
  • What makes this more of an issue for me than for others?

Consider Alternative Explanations

Now comes the hard work. Open yourself up to alternate explanations that don’t conflict as strongly with your values. You can do this in several ways.

  1. Think of alternate explanations or motives for the change. Perhaps the 6-week implementation timing was required because the change will affect the accounting and therefore needs to be done within the fiscal year. Maybe the leaders are constrained by that.
  2. Consider the positive aspects of the change. At least if the change is done by the end of the year, we’ll have a clean slate to start the new year. Maybe a compressed timeline is better than one that’s long and drawn-out.
  3. Compare to benchmarks. We only had 4 weeks to implement the new order-entry system and we got through that. Maybe 6 weeks is doable. Maybe you talk to friends in other organizations and learn that they implemented this type of change in 6 weeks.
  4. Focus on things you can control. I can shorten our weekly meetings and use that time for trouble-shooting on the implementation. I can push to make sure the training materials are really clear so it’s easier for my team to get up to speed quickly. Maybe I can do things to make it less likely that my worst-case scenarios play out.

Revisit Your Response

Now go back through the change in your head applying your more constructive lens. How can you talk more objectively about the change to your team? What are you going to do to increase the likelihood that the change is a success (rather than standing with your arms crossed waiting for it to be a failure)?

Ask for Help

If you’re struggling with any step in this process, find a safe person and a safe place to ask for help. A safe person is someone you can trust who won’t think less of you for your initial resistance to the change. A safe place is out of earshot of other people and preferably out of the line of sight, so you don’t have to worry about people watching you as you wrestle with difficult issues. Then just say,

“I’m struggling with the x, how are you thinking about this?”

“I can’t stop thinking that this will happen…”

“Help me give them the benefit of the doubt…”

“How do I get past this?”

If you’re resisting a change in your organization, you have work to do to reframe your thinking. That doesn’t mean that you have to see the light and become an evangelist for the change, but it does mean that you need to find ways of thinking about the change that will allow you to move forward as a leader authentically.

Read the Whole Series

Leading Through Change Part 1: Reflection

Leading Through Change Part 3: Resilience

Further Reading

What to Say to Someone Resisting Change

Managing Constant Change

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change