How Do You Lead Your Team to Support Change?

Steve was leading a meeting with his organization’s top executives. He had to tell them that they needed to change how they operate – a big change that would affect every part of the company.

Steve explained, “The way we’ve been doing things won’t work well anymore, it’s dead.” The executives had various reactions, from curiosity to shock. They asked questions like, “What do you mean it’s dead?” “How will this change our roles?”

This situation isn’t uncommon. Many organizations go through big changes. Can we learn something from this about how to lead such changes?

How Change Affects Our Need to Belong

Most methods for managing change used to be about having a plan from the top, changing things, and getting everyone on board. But even with new approaches, making big changes is still hard – many change programs fail. Change should happen quickly, with less resistance, and bring lasting results.

Unseen forces affect how organizations behave. Like gravity, these forces guide behavior. The most powerful force in managing change is our basic need to belong.

Belonging is a survival-based need that helps humans grow up and function in social groups. Change can threaten this need, questioning our deep commitments.

Research shows that the top 12% of successful change had leaders who valued belonging. What does this mean? It means leading in two ways. On one hand, these leaders made efforts to make people feel connected and important in their work. On the other hand, they understood that change requires “un-belonging,” which involves two things:

  1. Helping others let go of old ways that no longer fit.
  2. Breaking away from group beliefs to find new solutions.

Too much belonging can stop new ideas from emerging.

Four Ways Belonging Can Drive Change

Steve had to convince his team to belong to a new way of doing things by encouraging un-belonging. He did this by gently disconnecting them from the old setup while not holding onto views he used to believe in.

So, how can leaders manage belonging/unbelonging while still helping people feel comfortable in disruptive times? How can they build loyalty while letting go of what no longer works? Here are four ways:

  1. Be aware of your feelings:
    During the changes, Steve looked inside himself and realized he felt upset about leaving an old way that worked well. This feeling challenged his sense of belonging. Understanding our emotions helps us make better decisions and think creatively.
  2. Determine what people want to keep – and why:
    Steve paid attention to his team and learned they wanted to keep their teams together. He realized they couldn’t come up with a new plan because they were too tied to their old teams. Understanding what people value helps you approach their loyalties with respect.
  3. Lead uncomfortable discussions:
    Steve addressed his team’s discomfort by talking about why they didn’t want to split up. This allowed them to see their loyalty was getting in the way of the company’s transition. Having tough conversations helps people understand the need for change.
  4. Think about the prize and the cost of change:
    Leaders often focus on the benefits of change and ignore the costs. Naming and dealing with both helps create genuine belonging. Steve’s honesty about his own feelings opened up communication and helped the team see that their sacrifice would benefit the whole company.

Managing un-belonging – in yourself and your team – is crucial for successful change. This skill will be important as organizations adapt to the changing global economy.

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