Critical Mistakes Managers Make During Times of Change

by John Whitaker on May 26, 2015 11:00:00 AM

Optimized-iStock_000063417295_SmallMy grandfather had a great phrase he’d use whenever a pressure situation came up in one of my ballgames: “You never know what’s inside the tube until you squeeze.” We see this consistently in the world of sports — the World Series, Super Bowl, March Madness, and The Masters — times where an athlete is faced with a situation unlike one they have experienced before. In that moment, many careers are defined, as an individual either soars or crumbles in the face of being “squeezed.”

As citizens in the corporate world, we’ve no doubt witnessed a similar phenomenon at the workplace. Change hits the company, and the curtain is lifted to show behaviors that are drastically different than when it’s business as usual. When the fist is squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube, you can easily spot the need for leadership. These times of chaos can certainly present opportunities to shine for those who choose to seize the moment.

But many managers don't have the right leadership qualities — they're unprepared, unwilling, or unable to successfully navigate the new dynamic. For example, it’s estimated that as many as 90% of managers are psychologically unprepared to handle a merger or acquisition.

Even worse, sometimes managers will exacerbate the chaos by succumbing to a few very primal instincts. Avoid these five critical mistakes leaders often make during times of change.

Mistake 1: Remaining Silent

Don’t wait until you have “all” the information before communicating: When change is announced, employees automatically believe you know more than they do. The fact is, you may not know anything more, but silence is a mistake. Ensure employees that change is occurring; they should expect changes to continue for some time; and that they can trust as you have information to share, you will do so. Frequent, unscheduled communications are very effective — even an update to confirm there are no updates can put an employee’s mind at ease.

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Mistake 2: Soft Selling the Reality

It’s not fun to be in a position where you can impact someone’s livelihood. When corporations have major shake-ups, the “what about me?” alarm goes off in the head of every employee (including yours). The inclination to be empathetic to others can actually work against us in these situations. Mergers, acquisitions, restructuring, reorganizing — however you label the change, jobs will be impacted. When asked (and you will most certainly be asked) what if-type questions, be careful not to make vague assurances, such as “I’m pretty sure our group will be fine,” or statements that sound like promises, like “There’s nothing to worry about.” Funny thing about human beings: we will only hear what we are listening for. Proceed carefully, and don’t be hesitant to lay down a few truth bombs while you’re at it, such as “In my experience, these things change daily. I wouldn’t hazard a guess.”

Mistake 3: Lowering Expectations for Performance

This is the classic fallback management style, again betrayed by our proclivity to be empathetic. When we know the anxiety level for our employees is high, we take our foot off the gas and allow our expectations to coast. Change causes distractions, which cause drops in productivity. You can safely estimate an additional two hours of non-productive behavior per employee per day if you allow employees to freeze. When you actually increase your expectations, it’s akin to snapping your fingers to get someone’s attention — you need to awaken your people by managing their performance even more closely than before. Set deadlines, short-term goals (and wins), and expectations for frequent updates.

Mistake 4: Contributing to the Mess

Even in senior leadership positions, we are first and foremost human beings, meaning we are vulnerable to the same emotional responses to change. One of the most common — and damaging — reactions to change is resistance. Whether it takes the form of clearly visible and audible resistance or its sneaky twin passive resistance, when it exists in your management team, it can sabotage successful change. I’ve been in the room when a senior leader labeled the current acquisition as an “insane proposition.” His team believed him and latched onto that mindset — a decision that caused irreparable damage to several of their careers, none more so than that of the senior leader. Emotional reaction to corporate machinations is not a luxury for management.

Mistake 5: Disowning the Decision

Some HR managers will advise that you never preface updates with “Management/Corporate/Leadership has determined ...” as it seems to defer responsibility. I’m going to add a caveat to that blanket advice: if you personally had input in the decisions that are being implemented, then do not go “3rd party” on your team. But what if you didn’t have a say? You don’t need to claim responsibility, as in “we’ve decided.” You may not be asked to own the change; just support the change.

Change is coming, along with death and taxes. Employees will look to you for leadership during a time of complete unknowns, so be prepared to be squeezed.



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This post was written by John Whitaker

John Whitaker is a thought leader in Human Resources, specializing in the employee experience. After 15 years in the corporate Human Resources suite, John has spent the last five years consulting in the biotechnology space, including Alcon, Bayer, Bausch & Lomb, Genentech, and Avalanche Biotech. He lives in Southlake, Texas with his wife and two sons.

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