How understanding loss helps you manage culture through change

I have always identified as a change junkie. It’s why I’m in the business of change management. Why I’ve lived in five different cities in the past ten years. 

And yet, I make my coffee the exact same way every morning. I want to eat the same cranberry dressing at Thanksgiving each year. I was unreasonably upset when my favorite restaurant took the roasted cauliflower off the menu.

I am the CEO of NOBL, a global change agency. We have the great fortune of working with ambitious and empathetic leaders, helping their teams to not only survive change, but get good at it. We see the dichotomy I described above with every single client.

We do an exercise with clients where we have them place themselves on a spectrum from “more change the better!” to “don’t mess” and then run them through different circumstances: change of commute, change of business strategy, change of role, change of family traditions, change of interface of digital tools you use. Everyone ends up on the “don’t mess” end of the spectrum at least once. 

Bree Groff | Culture Amp

Supporting your people and upholding your culture through change is an exercise in extreme empathy. For any change you’re leading or supporting - a new leader, a new strategy, a re-org, a new process, a new tool, or a more gradual shift in mindset and culture - that change is somebody’s “don’t mess.” And it feels just as personal as someone taking away your cranberry dressing.

Why people resist change

The key is understanding what people are actually resisting in these situations. Surprisingly, it’s not change.

It’s loss.

Ask yourself, from an employee’s vantage point, if they were to get on board with change, what would they be losing?

We have charted all kinds of loss that employees anticipate during organizational change. Six always rise to the top

1. Loss of Control

If you’re not inviting employees into designing the change with you, it’s something that’s happening to them. In those cases, even if it is a positive change, the lack of control people feel is a more salient, negative emotion. One leader we worked with liked to say that even if she gave every employee a $100 bonus, people would complain that it was paid in twenties and not tens.

2. Loss of Pride

This is pride of the past, of what you’ve built. Remember, employees should feel proud of their work, and their contribution to growing your company. Unfortunately, too many leaders make the mistake of cheerleading the future at the expense of the past. We’re not doing that anymore, we’re doing THIS! Isn’t it better? Of course, your people built “that.

At one project kick-off, our client invited both the former head of customer service (who was being transitioned to a different role), and the new head of customer service. Our client, opened with how ineffective the department’s current practices are and how excited he was for a brand new chapter. It was well-intentioned, but you can imagine how that must have felt to the outgoing department head. And the sentiment spread to the department itself - people hated that the leader they respected was being replaced and that their work to date was branded as “ineffective.”

3. Loss of narrative

At work, it’s the decisions you have fought for, the positions you have taken and have delighted in explaining to your team. We worked with one VP of Marketing at a time when they were shifting focus from print to digital advertising. The VP could see where the industry was headed, and yet she was the one who convinced the CMO and her colleagues to previously expand the print team. The story she had told for years was that print was still king. She had to, painfully, change her own party line.

4. Loss of time

The advice we offer leaders that they most hate is that if the change you’re introducing requires additional work (and they all do), you must remove other things from your people’s plates. Don’t make people choose between investing in your change and seeing their friends and family. The change you desire must be part of your people’s day jobs.

One of our clients was promoted into a big new role and she was thrilled. It was a strategic position for the company. But one of the conditions of the promotion was that she would continue to function in her previous role for the foreseeable future. That’s two full-time jobs! On a daily basis, she was choosing between change and sleeping. And believe me, the last thing you want is a zombie in your big new strategic role.

5. Loss of Competence

Especially when the change you’re after is embracing innovation, by definition, you’re asking people move away from executing based on expertise. Understandably, people like to be good at their work. If your organization has a performance- or results-driven culture it’s no wonder that people would resist. What percentage of your time at work do you feel like you know what you’re doing? 100% of the time? 70%? 50% or less?

It’s a subjective measure, but for quickly evolving industries, we like to see no higher than 70%. It means you’re learning and operating outside of your comfort zone! But if you’re asking people to do something so totally new they’re at 50% or less in terms of competency, they’ll wonder if they’re still in the right role or the right company. 

6. Loss of Familiarity

Humans have spent most of their existence trying to predict things. The weather, the stock market, who’s showing up at the Superbowl. It is in our DNA to find comfort and power in seeing the future. Change disrupts that. One of our clients, an agency, was mid-merger and facing a significant downturn in morale. People supported the merger, but because the change was led so poorly, 6-months in people started asking themselves, “How long is it going to take before work feels normal again. Will it ever?” (Head here for more on how to do culture right during M&As).

So what do you do about all of this?

Change and transition are two different things

Now, you can make change happen in an instant. In life, births, deaths, marriages happen in a moment. In organizations, it’s the day the reorg is official or the day the CEO delivers some news at the all-hands. But transition is different; it’s behavior change, and it’s a process. 

In fact, there are three distinct steps, first outlined by William Bridges in the 1980s. The first is an ending. Helping people come to terms with what they’re losing. The second is adjustment where you address each component of loss. Only the third is the start of something new. Can you guess where most leaders want to jump in? 

Yep, step 3. It’s incredibly tempting to start with the new shiny thing. But that’s not where your people are. Prince Charles was once asked if he was excited for the day he’d become king. He responded, “Of course not. That would mean my mother just died." 

How to lead people through change

The antidote is to move through each step, in order.

Do what few leaders do. Honor the loss. Have a ceremony for the past or find a way to memorialize it. Just as the marketing department I mentioned was moving away from print, they invested in framing images from their favorite print campaigns to hang in the office. It allowed people to still feel pride in their past work, even as they were moving onto something new. Ben and Jerry’s has a colorful graveyard for flavors they no longer produce. 

Then, during the adjustment period, figure out who’s losing what, and stare it in the face. The worst kind of loss is the kind that is not acknowledged. See it and make a plan for it. 

Then, when it’s finally time for a new beginning, your only job is to celebrate early and often. Paste positive customer feedback on the walls. Bring in crowns for the team that just launched a new product in record time. Do whatever feels like fun in your company’s culture. You will have deserved it.


Bree_Groff.pngBree Groff is a speaker, consultant, and serves as CEO of the global change agency, NOBL. For more than a decade, Bree has been focused on transformation and organizational design, advising leaders at companies including Calvin Klein, Intel, Adobe, Capital One, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She holds an MS in Organizational Learning and Change from Northwestern University where she continues to lecture on decision-making amidst change.

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