Leading in Uncertain Times

September 22, 2021

Last week I had the pleasure of facilitating Leading Change in Uncertain Times at the IDN Summit & Reverse Expo Virtual Fall Conference. I’ve used the William Bridges model for managing transitions from his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change for years, for everything from layoffs to opening a new hospital, opening a new medical office building with providers who were losing their autonomy, closing a hospital, mergers, remote ICU monitoring, and more. The model is a great template to help your team or organization through a major change. As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty has become a way of life. Some of us manage it better than others.

As a leader, your job is to move your team forward to achieve organizational goals while keeping your employees safe and productive. Employees process through these three phases at their own pace. As a leader (formal or informal) here are some tips you can use to assist yourself and others through change.

Endings- Ask “Who stands to lose what with the anticipated change?”

Consider - What Stops? What Starts? What Continues? Losses may include: Control of destiny, status, power, influence, security, structure, relationships, personal identity, meaningful work, and confidence. The feeling of loss can be personally painful. How can you help someone process and grieve these losses and get closure? Let’s use the example of a furlough. You’re mandating employees to take time off unpaid or use accumulated PTO. Which emotions might this trigger? What sense of loss might they feel? They may feel they are temporarily losing most of the above, status, power, relationships, income, control over their destiny, etc. They may also wonder, “will this become permanent? When I return, is my job at risk?” This may trigger fear, grief, anxiety and difficulty focusing.

Neutral Zone The Neutral Zone is the time in between - when the old is gone, but the new is not yet real. There is some forward momentum but people tend to be disoriented, confused and anxious. You may notice that listening skills are less effective, learning and comprehension decrease. Are you repeating instructions? There is increased vulnerability to illness – stress reaction. It becomes important for everyone to practice self-care as an antidote to stress. Some people will want to rush forward and others will want to go back to the old ways. In our session the poll came back equally divided with 1/3 saying their staff wanted to move forward, 1/3 saying the staff wanted to revert to old ways and 1/3 citing staff was stuck and uncertain what they wanted. This isn’t surprising. Fear can be paralyzing. Communication is essential. When you can’t tell people what, tell them how the what is going to be determined and when. Explain when you run into a delay. Empathize. You can’t overcommunicate! If you do a good job explaining the furlough and trust is high, people may be able to look at it as a positive respite, a time to be with family, relax, get home improvement projects done, tackle the reading list, etc. If not, they may continue to swirl in Endings or the Neutral Zone.

Next week -we’ll continue tips to navigate the Neutral Zone and move to New Beginnings.

Picture Credit to Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges

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