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Are Your Employees Struggling with Change? Seven Tips for Fostering an Adaptive Workforce

Sandra Loughlin

Ph.D., Head of Client Learning & Talent Enablement, EPAM
Blog

Every successful organization has to make the transition from a world defined primarily by repetition to one primarily defined by change. This is the biggest transformation in the structure of how humans work together since the Agricultural Revolution.

Bill Drayton

Social entrepreneur

The past few decades have upended thousands of years of what we’ve come to expect from work. An explosion of knowledge, dizzying advances in technology and a dramatic shift in globalization have fundamentally changed how we live and work. The global COVID pandemic—the consummate black swan event—only underscores what has become abundantly clear about the future: Business survival means expecting the unexpected.

This seismic shift has major implications for companies, especially in the area of talent. Future-proofed. Workforce of the future. Bionic. These are a handful of descriptors for the type of employees necessary to carry a business forward. As a leader, it is incumbent on you to cultivate this digital workforce and ensure they can respond to rapid changes in expectations, technology and ways of working.

But how? What are the characteristics of people who can successfully pivot with your organization? Think about an amazing member of your team, one you are confident can handle uncertainty and dynamic conditions. What qualities, orientation or mindset do they possess that positions them for success? Comfort with change, or something similar, like flexibility, probably came immediately to mind. That’s because an ability to adapt to the inevitable changes they will encounter is a critical factor in navigating the new normal.

There are three major psychological aspects that make up comfort with change.

  • Tolerance for ambiguity is the degree to which an individual is comfortable with uncertainty. People respond differently to ambiguity, especially when risk is involved. However, the higher a person’s ambiguity tolerance, the more cooperative, open-minded and flexible they are in their work, even when faced with an uncertain outcome.
  • Adaptability is the ability to change actions or approach to suit the environment. That means being open to innovation and adept at working both independently and in groups in the workplace. An adaptable person takes on challenges and accepts change in a positive manner.
  • Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, recover from setbacks and continue moving forward despite adversity. Resilience helps individuals effectively handle difficult situations and frustrations, remain optimistic in the face of challenges and think flexibly when they need to change directions.
TIPS TO CULTIVATE COMFORT WITH CHANGE IN YOUR ORGANIZATION

Comfort with change is strongly associated with personality—some people are just more flexible than others. However, you can lead by example and create an environment where even the most rigid employees become more comfortable with change. Here’s how:

Look Inward

As a leader, you set the tone for your organization—how you respond to change will significantly impact your teams. When faced with leading transformation, start by examining your personal levels of tolerance for and reaction to change. It may be helpful to identify a trusted advisor who finds change exciting and exhilarating—from inside or outside your team—with whom you can discuss your strategy. In times of uncertainty, your positive attitude will motivate your team to keep going.

Communicate Openly

Leaders quell feelings of uncertainty and build a more resilient team when they address what is going on around them. When something happens, acknowledge it and communicate openly with your team about it. Even if you don’t have all the answers, share what you know, what you don’t know, and what is and isn’t changing. Don’t tell your team what they already know; instead, focus on gathering information that will be new and helpful to them.    

Cultivate Sense of Ownership

When faced with the need to change, many employees’ first inclination is denial. That can’t work here. We’ve always done it this way. If it’s not broken, why try to fix it? To help get people on board, offer employees a seat at the planning table. Host brainstorming sessions, idea boxes and other means of getting your team’s ideas for how to implement the necessary change. Listen carefully to employees who are raising important concerns and ask them to identify some possible solutions. By actively and transparently seeking input, you will help people feel a sense of ownership over the implementation approach. 

Think Ahead

In a dynamic environment, leaders often need to handle unanticipated hurdles and disruptions. While you can’t foresee every future event, you can usually identify the most probable scenarios. Brainstorm alternative scenarios with your team that could occur during digital transformation and develop contingency plans to mitigate the impact of changes or disruptions to your original plans.

Build Community

Social connectedness is one of the best supports for fostering comfort with change and challenge. People are relationship-driven, and your team will build a stronger bond when personal connections are shared. You can foster team connectedness by setting up team meetings and leaving a little time at the beginning or end to interact with colleagues on a more personal level. You should also set time up for fun activities with the group outside the office (in-person or virtually) to promote team building. Don’t wait to do this, though. Get started now to lay a solid foundation.

Don’t Waffle

Team members should feel confident in their leader's decisions, so do your best to stay the course once a change plan has been identified. But don’t stick to a failing approach. If you need to change direction, be decisive. Get comfortable with the change yourself so that when you inform your team, you are confident in what you are saying and prepared to answer questions. When changes happen, communicate with transparency by explaining why things are changing and provide your team time to talk about the changes and realign their thinking.

Hire Change-Ready People

Navigating the inevitable ups and downs of transformation is easier when you have a change-ready team. Position yourself for success by actively looking for these qualities. You can assess a job candidate’s comfort with change in the interview process. Questions might include:

  • Have you ever experienced a sudden change in direction on a project or other work activity? What did you do? What should you have done differently?
  • Describe a situation in which you have faced a significant setback at work. How did you handle it? What lessons did you learn from the experience?
  • What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do at work? How did you get through it?   

In a digital world, the only constant is change. To excel in this environment, you’ll need employees who are comfortable with ambiguity and resilient to failures and frustrations. By taking an active role in cultivating comfort with change, you will help your teams devote their energy to creating value for the organization, remain optimistic in the face of challenges and think flexibly when they need to change direction.

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