Going through a business transformation might be one of the most traumatic work events you’ll ever experience. It’s akin to putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, only to have someone come in, flip it over and mix up the pieces. Then, they have the nerve to ask you to put it back together in a totally different way.
In the middle of a transformation, it is always messy, and people are often confused. The emotional experience can include everything from over-the-top excitement to a deep sense of anger and/or frustration. When these emotions are allowed to cycle up and down and back and forth without focused management for too long, they can turn to bitterness. Eventually, this leads to the erosion of trust across the company, and without trust, productive transformation is simply not possible.
In some organizations, people spend 10, 20, 30 years reporting for duty and performing the same tasks with very little change. Then, suddenly, someone swoops in and throws it all out the window. They’re now faced with the requirement of rethinking what they need to do to be successful going forward. This can truly feel like a professional panic attack and leave someone unable to sleep and eat. It can turn a person’s life on its head.
This is when it’s time to reexamine one’s purpose. By placing the attention on your purpose, you put failures to one side and concentrate on the person you want to be and the life you want to live. Turn negative into positive by seeing the transformation as an opportunity of a lifetime.
That’s the messy truth about business transformation: You either choose to get through it, or you choose to get out of it. In the latter case, someone might make the choice for you. And you just might find yourself breathing a sigh of relief and thanking them for it.
Throughout my career, I’ve helped lead many of these transformations. Each time I go through it, I can be pretty sure of the trajectory it’s going to take. Most times, the immediate start has a sense of excitement and newness that can be energizing. However, it generally changes quickly to a severe descent that drops you smack in the middle of that pile of puzzle pieces that requires being put together without any true direction or understanding of the picture the pieces should represent (and did we tell you, you’re also being timed?).
This is where taking time to gain perspective is critically important. Stepping up to the 25,000-foot level and looking down on what is exactly happening organizationally and personally can truly help with deciding on what is important and what you can let go of. Stepping up and away from the immediate requirement of the puzzle pieces helps you to breathe, recall your true purpose and connect with others who are often feeling the same or similar emotions.
For those strategizing transformations, it can be easy to dehumanize the process and turn it into a numbers game. I strongly encourage you not to do that.
Instead, demonstrate courage of leadership by recognizing that there are humans behind every decision you make, and empathize with them as they struggle through the transformation that you know will ultimately lead the organization to a better place.
Whether you’re leading or being led, here are four ways you can cope with the pain of business transformations:
1. Talk about it. Having town halls and web conferences where leadership provides updates to employees is a given. You have to start there. That said, the deepest impact is made through one-on-one conversations. That’s where people feel the most comfortable sharing their pain points and where leaders can gain valuable insights by listening closely. In the end, everyone just wants to understand what’s happening and why.
2. Don’t be scared. It’s impossible to operate in a culture of fear. As a leader, you must give permission to your team to ask the tough questions and push back without the threat of retaliation. As an employee, you need to take advantage of opportunities to speak up. If you don’t, leaders will never know what’s keeping you up at night, and you might miss out on a chance to be a catalyst for change.
3. Find trust. Leaders can gain trust by being honest, transparent and empathetic. When difficult decisions need to be made, explain why. Be clear. Be direct. Show you care. Trust goes both ways. If you’re being led through a transition, be open to the change. Be flexible. Don’t assume negative intent. Remember you’re all on the same team.
4. Try not to let your personal well-being follow the trajectory of the business transformation. That’s not good for you, the organization or your loved ones. Allow yourself to enjoy your life. Accept that there will be bad days at work, but understand that they don’t define you. Breathe. Smile. Laugh. Love. Live.
Remember that business transformation isn’t about change for change’s sake. It’s about our customers. It’s an age-old process that requires persistence and the rethinking of how we get work done. It’s survival. It’s progress. It’s about finding the missing piece of the puzzle that produces a picture that all, especially our customers, can admire and be proud of constructing.