Five tips to help you manage change

If you’ve ever had to deliver news to a group about a coming change, you know how much potential there is for people to be skeptical or even outright unhappy. Maybe you work for a school that’s instituting a potentially unpopular policy change. Maybe you’re a student leader who has to tell your constituents that the prom or fundraiser or annual performance won’t be the same as it’s always been. Maybe you’re a parent who has to tell your kids that your family’s financial situation—and in turn, their college options—has changed. Even a change that is inherently good can be jarring and uncomfortable when it arrives unexpectedly, is communicated poorly, or is just flat-out handled badly. But if you take the time to clearly and thoughtfully explain what’s coming, if you give people time to get comfortable with it, if you allow them to be heard when they have feedback or concerns, most people will at the very least accept—and at the very most join you as an eager advocate for—the change.

Here are five tips to give you the best chance of a good outcome.

1. AEAP (As Early as Possible)
The best time to tell somebody about a change is before it happens. “This is coming” is easier to adjust to than “This is here.” If the change didn’t sneak up on you unannounced, share it with your people as early as you feel is appropriate. Don’t keep something secret unless there’s a good reason for it. People will feel valued and respected when they’re invited to hear the news early, even if the change you’re sharing isn’t a sure thing yet. It will give them time to get comfortable with what could be—or what is—coming. And they might even be able to help you make the change.

2. Control your own story.
When you’re intentional and specific about who is sharing the news, as well as when and with whom they’re sharing it, you control your story. But when it leaks out and spreads via hearsay, you’ve given up control. Gossip is born from uncertainty. And even the most well-intentioned third-party story-spreaders will inevitably leave out facts, create confusion, and lead to a feeling that something secretive is happening that is cause for concern. One way to control your story is to keep it a secret. A better way is to release it in a smart, organized way that assures everyone that they’re in the company loop.

3. Honesty beats spin.
It’s tempting to couch a change you’re sold on in only the best terms, or even to leave out any details that detract from it. But the more honest you are about the impending change, the more trust and support you can expect in return. People know when they’re being sold to, and spinning the story will only make them more suspicious and anxious. Share the good parts, but don’t exaggerate the potential benefits.

It’s also helpful to be honest about the aspects of the change that aren’t necessarily all positive. Are there risks? Uncertainties? A chance it might not work? Bring up the (potentially) bad after the good. Your people will appreciate the story without the spin.

4. Don’t fake democracy.
It’s great to ask for early feedback and to listen to what people tell you. But don’t do it under the pretense of giving them a vote if the decision has already been made. “We’re considering doing this—what do you think?” is very different from “We’re doing this—what do you think?” Be clear which one it is. And don’t give them the illusion of a vote if they won’t be invited to cast one.

5. Specific questions earn specific feedback.
A general question like “What do you think?” will often lead to a general response. But specific questions like “How do you think this might help solve our problem?” or “Do you think we’re overlooking anything important?” or “What are two things we could do that would make you more comfortable with this change?” will lead to more specific and more helpful feedback. And always end with, “What did I miss?” An open question at the end of a specific exchange is often when people bring up the topic that to them is the heart of the matter. But start with specific questions if you want to get the most helpful feedback.

There’s also a point at which you can spend too much time planning and crafting and managing your change, and not enough time just getting on with it. Overthinking your change management is almost as bad as underthinking it. When in doubt, keep it simple. Tell people as early as you can. Be honest with them about what’s happening and why. Treat them like trustworthy adults who deserve to know what’s really happening rather than being kept in the dark and then given a sales pitch. Your change management might not be perfect. But getting the basics right will mean that both the system and the people will be forgiving of any minor change management mistakes along the way.