WORDS BY ERIN SACCOMANO
ILLUSTRATION BY COLIN MACFADYEN & WALKER BALLANTYNE-MAUND
All change, regardless of scale, elicits a unique emotional journey within each individual. This emotional response is guaranteed to happen, making it one of the most difficult aspects of managing change.
“Change is not the issue,” says Sean Hubbard, President of leadership development agency, Declare It! “It’s the transition, which is an internal process within change, that is the most challenging.” Success through the transition is defined by a leader’s ability to adapt and manage each individual’s emotions through the lowest part of their journey.
While the Change Curve model illustrates the journey of change in its entirety, it’s the lowest portion of the curve, ‘the dip’, that activates complex emotional challenges. Taking place in the middle, the dip is the component of change where feelings of doubt and failure start to seep in and confidence and energy levels start to decline. “The good news is,” says Hubbard, “the dip is completely predictable. It will happen, so plan for it to happen.”
Success in passing through the dip as proficiently as possible is dependent on managing employees’ confidence and energy levels as they travel through three key stages within the dip: The Questioning, The Trench and The Shift.
The Questioning stage begins as individuals start working their way through the transition and their new reality sets in. This is the point at which things become unfamiliar and fear of the unknown triggers a visceral stress response. The defining moment happens when confidence takes a hit and energy levels start to decrease. “This is where employees start to revert to their old, familiar worlds and ways of doing things as that is where their confidence was highest,” says Hubbard. Success navigating The Questioning stage requires honest and open communication to set realistic expectations between a leader and employee. This open dialogue works to reassure that the intent of the change, and the opportunity behind it, will be worth it.
The second stage, The Trench, is symbolic of the heavy lifting that is required as the real work sets in. Failure is imminent as learning through trial and error begins, which is often accompanied by confusion and frustration. In this stage, obstacles and unpredictable challenges present themselves which begin to drain time, resources and patience. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, “in the middle, everything looks like a failure” (Kanter’s Law). The effect of this stage triggers a physical stress response which further depletes confidence and energy levels. This response may manifest in changes to sleep and eating habits, which continue to erode an individual’s energy level. This directly impacts perceived confidence and, as a result, the depth of the dip deepens. Any delay in action from leaders in this stage increases the risk of prolonging time spent in The Trench, which will continue to drain resources. There is also the added threat of employees regressing back to The Questioning stage and having to start the process all over. Success in The Trench requires leaders to be accessible and open to feedback. They must allow time for individuals to adapt from their old worlds to the new and remain proactive in helping to overcome barriers. Identifying solutions, remaining agile and anticipating the need to pivot in this ever-changing environment are essential to navigating this stage.
The Shift stage happens as confidence is restored and energy is regained. This is accomplished through incremental successes, learning from failures and seeing the work become manageable and more familiar. As progress becomes more prevalent than failures, the implied benefits of the change start to become visible and within reach. Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School Professor, refers to this resurgence as “The Progress Principle” which is identifiable by “a positive inner work life, which contributes to progress, creating an upward spiral of creativity, engagement and performance”. This principle fosters success in The Shift and requires open communication between leaders, employees and fellow team members. Acknowledgement and celebration of accomplishments in this stage restores confidence and energy which further cultivates progression. Success in this stage also relies upon the adoption of a growth mindset to encourage individuals to reflect on and learn from the experience as they move through the rest of the curve. The dip is an incubator of the human elements that become activated during the transition of change.
This journey is not a linear process. All individuals will travel through the dip and “it is rare that each individual experiences the journey at the same rate of time,” says Hubbard. “Frustration and conflict often arise as the result of the gap that broadens between individuals who navigate the dip sooner or faster than their colleagues.” Senior leaders tend to precede their teams through the transition, and this is when misalignment becomes apparent – a shift in company morale is felt and silos begin to form. Success navigating the dip requires both open communication and emotional intelligence from those leading and those following through the transition of change.
“As a leader, your job is not to eliminate the dip, but to mitigate it,” Hubbard states. Managing change requires a clear understanding of where all individuals are on their journeys through the dip in order to inspire and motivate team members. By taking an active role in each individual’s transition through The Questioning, The Trench and The Shift, leaders will be better equipped to support employees through the process of change. This proactive approach will foster a dynamic culture of change makers, eager to tackle the next opportunity.