Understanding Team Response to Change

Change is our theme for the month, I thought I’d kick it off with something you can bring straight into the many walls of your restaurant: understanding some mechanics of a team’s response to change.  “Some” is an important word here, there are countless factors that go into how individuals and teams develop their acceptance of or resistance to change.  The following article is intended to give you some basics to start from when you’re trying to figure out how to move through change in a way that invites communication, participation, understanding, and commitment.

Please send your thoughts about this article and topic, I’d love to hear what you connected with, what you didn’t like or want to challenge, if you thought it was useful or not, or anything else that comes to mind.

Thank you for your time!  -Becky

Understanding Team Response to Change

By Becky Lemon, 2/6/19
Of all the polarizing experiences in life, one we can all relate to is change.  

Change is good!  Fresh start! New opportunities!  
Change is bad.  Scary unknowns. New obstacles.
Leaders drive change and see it as a source of creativity and positive momentum; they look and encourage others to look at the everyday through different perspectives and altitudes to uncover unmet needs, re-imagine outdated systems and build new ones, examine traditions to confirm or challenge their relevance, and shape paths toward shared goals.
“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.”  Max Du Pree

Leaders also invite commitment to changes a team must go through.  

Developing and implementing new guidelines that clarify what was once cloudy, initiatives that will energize the environment, or makeovers that breathe life into tiring traditions (uniforms, facilities, menu items, “how we do things”) ?  It’s unlikely that everyone – including you at times – will show up embracing the change; taking time to understand the factors that are affecting an individual’s or team’s response to it will help to remove the obstacles that are holding people back from being on board with the shift, innovation, or new direction.  


Resistance is your team’s way of broadcasting their needs. Take the time to listen to and understand them.

If change is on the horizon, at your doorstep, or alive and kicking and you’re sensing resistance to it, avoid managing people’s response to it or putting a spin on it to get agreement.  Try shining a light on these questions to anticipate or understand what’s behind the resistance so you can get everyone on the same page, and move forward together from there:

Have you checked yourself (or are you wrecking yourself?)  

If you haven’t taken the time to work through your own possible resistance to the change you will directly or indirectly pass along that response to your team.  Speak up, ask questions, do what you need to do to square yourself with the purpose, the intent, the plan, and the people; make sure it all makes sense to you. If you are rooted in the belief that this change, however difficult, is present to propel growth toward a goal you truly believe in, your team will sense that and be more willing to open up to you about their own feelings about it.   


Did it catch them off-guard?

People need time to prepare and process their feelings toward change, and they need information to do all of that.  If you missed opportunities to communicate that change is on the way or it came out of nowhere without much warning, help your team see what you saw from the moment change became inevitable and listen to how the whole experience landed on them.  There’s a good chance everyone will learn something and you’ll come away knowing how to best support one another from that point on.  


Do they trust the intent of the change?

You may know the “why” behind the change and all of the factors and possibilities that have been considered, does everyone?  Does everyone believe the people driving the change have their best interests in mind and are capable of seeing this change through in a satisfying and effective way?  The absence of understanding of these crucial pieces of the puzzle can open the door for people to tell their own stories about the reason behind the change. At the earliest point possible, go out and get people’s feedback about the situation and the proposed plan.  Listen to their point of view, share what you know about the purpose for this change and ensure you’ve all absorbed the information you’re discussing. If you uncover conflict along the way, address it. Trust increases when people can see the same picture of where you’re all at, find common ground on where you’re all going, get alignment on what you all aim to achieve, and have reasonable belief that you’ve all got the goods to be successful.   


Is their voice in it, do they have agency in it?

People commit to plans that they created, were able to contribute to, or maintain some decision making and control in. Where can you get your team in on the process of the change at hand? Is it at the very beginning, the “blank-page” collaboration where a group is trying to figure out what to do, or has a direction been set and you need to help them sift through details, possibilities, and feelings until they can connect to the change in their own way?  Figure out where their point of engagement is and invite their participation. If you made a mistake and didn’t get their voice where it was needed to gain commitment, start talking with them and find out what steps you can take to resolve the conflict and learn, so different choices can be made in the future.  


Do you know what they’re afraid of losing?

Often, people perceive change as a threat to something they hold dear or think they need for survival.  If their focus is on what could be lost, ask about that and listen to their fears for understanding (this is the “noise,” the symptom, the surface thing people feel comfortable talking about).  Dig deeper to find the nugget underneath (this is the root cause, fundamental value, principle, or need that they are trying to protect). Once you’ve identified the nugget, work with them from there.  That’s where you’re most likely to find the common ground that opens them up to letting go of what they’re holding on to and seeing their needs being met with new possibilities.  


Do you know what they’re afraid of gaining?  

Human beings often like things to stay routine. There is comfort in knowing the box we’re in (even if we don’t always enjoy the box).  When we’re in a groove, we know how to manage our time, expectations, status, relationships, and effort; that all gets called into question with change and those unknowns can cause immense anxiety.  Find out where they’re worried about their load getting bigger, heavier, or more stressful. Clear the air of that future fog with information that paints a realistic picture of what their life will look like with the change in place, so they can make choices for themselves, prepare, and connect with any support they’ll need.  When they’re ready, help them turn attention toward and connect with the ways that this change will actually benefit them.  


Is your team attached to outcomes?

If you’re hearing a lot of “what if this happens,” “we’ve always done it this way,” and worst-case scenarios that you sense are intended to scare off the change, that’s most likely fear talking and seeking out a narrow path.  Find out how you can open things up for the people that are throwing out those caution signs. That could mean focusing on the values and process (we’re courageously creating), making failure okay (if it doesn’t work, we’re smart enough to figure out what will), or illuminating all of the possibilities (pick the vision of the future you want to move toward, which could include keeping things the way they are).    


Change is going to happen, and a mixed bag of excitement and resistance will always be close behind.  Stay connected with your team about what’s important to them and get feedback from them when little or big shifts are in the air.  Gaining understanding of what is causing your team or individual’s on it to show up with open or closed arms and helping them find their voice in the process is the key to navigating change in a satisfying and effective way for everyone.   

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