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Presence in the Face of Change Management

3 min read

Taking a moment to pause, check in, and see how folks are feeling in the face of change is key. Often the biggest thing getting in the way of transforming your organization is unspoken or unacknowledged feelings.

Acquisitions. Mergers. Turnover. New technology systems and software. Economic shifts. Operational redesigns. New hires. In today’s workplace, change is no longer seen as three to six months of turbulence. Instead, the uncertainty can last for much longer, even years.

In the midst of that uncertainty, teams tread water and attempt to keep legacy projects afloat. All the while, it would seem that they are – to borrow a popular phrase – “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” While some remain engaged, many adopt a “wait and see” stance – and you lose time and productivity in the duration.

You can imagine that adding “something new to learn” isn’t always met with the greatest enthusiasm when employees are worried that their projects, department or job may not exist after the transition is complete.

So, how can leaders:

  • Maintain composure and empower their employees during a transition phase that seems to have no end in sight?
  • Reassure their staff that despite the turmoil, our strategy and mission remains clear?
  • Get employees to embrace change and add new skills to tweak the way they perform?

The simple answer? By having presence.

Let me indulge you in a story.

I’m on an “adventure vacation,” helping my best friend Pam celebrate her 40th birthday. Keep in mind, I am not an adventure traveler.

Yet, I find myself standing in the middle of the hot, oppressively humid Costa Rican rainforest. We’ve been walking for almost an hour under a verdant canopy of vines and dense foliage. Orchid flowers dripping from trees. Toucans nesting in branches. Under the hardhat I’m wearing, sweat is dripping down my brow.

At the same time, a harness chafes uncomfortably against my legs. You see, Pam has decided that to celebrate her birthday, she wants all of us to go zip lining. I find myself thinking that if I could have found my way back to the base lodge through this jungle, I would have bailed by now.

Sebastian, our local guide, leads us to the first platform. He methodically goes through the instructions. I don’t hear a thing. I’m too paralyzed with fear to take in his words. When he finishes the demonstration he turns to the group and asks, “Who here is most afraid?”

Pam reaches over and raises my hand.

“Come, come up to the platform,” Sebastian says. “What is your name?”

I can’t speak. My tongue is glued to the top of my mouth. I am so nervous my knees are actually knocking together. I know he can see the terror in my eyes.

“Did you hear my instructions?” His voice is calm and steady. I shake my head, no. He repeats patiently, “I’m going to clip you to the line. All you need to do is hold on here. Scrunch your legs up tight. And, most importantly, keep your eyes open!”

I shake my head “No, Sebastian, I’m not ready to…”

He pushes me off the platform. I can feel the wind whipping against my face…I am holding tight to the line…I scrunch up my knees…finally, I remember…open your eyes.

Oh, my lord! It is MAGNIFICENT!

I am zipping along suspended by a thread over a lush, rainforest valley. Then, before I can fully take in the majesty of the world under me — BAM! — I am on the other side. Sebastian’s assistant grabs the line and my feet are firmly planted on the next platform.

We can all learn much from Sebastian about leading change. His instincts about how to get folks to jump into the abyss were spot on.

Here’s what he did right:

The EQ Check-In

“Who here is most afraid?” With those words, Sebastian acknowledged that he knew he was asking us to take a huge leap into the unknown, and that we might have feelings about that risk.

You’ve got to address the 800-lb. gorilla in the room – or the gaping abyss in the rainforest. Taking a moment to pause, check in, and see how folks are feeling in the face of change is key. Often the biggest thing getting in the way of transforming your organization is unspoken or unacknowledged feelings.

Be patient. Stick to your message. Repeat.

Sebastian must have gone through these zip line instructions a bazillion times. But he still had the energy to patiently and methodically repeat his message to ensure that I got it.

As leaders we often tire of our own change message before our people on the frontline really get it. But we can’t give up.

Don’t be afraid to push!

When all else fails you may have to give your employees a nudge off the platform. But before you do – don’t forget to remind them to keep their eyes open. They may even enjoy the ride!


What about you? How do you use your presence to help employees through a difficult transition that seems to never end? Tell us in the comments below.


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