5 Concerns People Have When Being Asked to Change

April 8, 2020 David Witt

As organizations implement contingency plans to deal with the realities of business disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to remember that people go through predictable and sequential stages of concern during any change. Here is change leadership expert Judd Hoekstra, co-creator of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Leading People Through Change solution, to explain.

“When we use the word concerns, we are talking about people’s unanswered questions. If leaders are able to surface these unanswered questions and address them, people won't get stuck during change. This is especially important when asking people to change on the scale we are now experiencing.”

For senior leaders addressing business disruptions caused by COVID-19, Hoekstra shares the importance of surfacing and addressing the five predictable stages of concern.

“The first stage, information concerns, is about giving people an understanding of what the change is, why it's needed, and why it's needed now. In many cases, senior leaders initiating change start by selling the need for the change before people even understand what the change is.

“In many cases, leaders have solid rationale for why they choose to initiate change—but they don't always share that rationale with the people who are being asked to make the change. For example, a month ago we were told by a government agency that wearing face masks in public was not necessary. But just recently, the same agency recommended that we do start wearing face masks in public. What has changed? Why are face masks being recommended now? Do we have to wear them? Will there be enough available for healthcare workers? Leaders can speed up the adoption of necessary changes when they share the information behind the decision.”

But information is just the beginning, says Hoekstra. Once people understand the rationale behind a change, they begin to think about how the change will impact them personally.

“The second stage is tougher: personal concerns. The unanswered questions people have at this stage are ‘How is this change going to play out for me? Am I going to win or lose? Will I have the resources I need?’

“In today’s unpredictable environment, leaders may have to announce salary reductions, reduced hours, or even possible layoffs if conditions don’t improve. These changes and people’s personal concerns about them are extremely serious—people want to know how they are going to pay their bills or if they are going to lose their job. This stage takes more time, simply because personal concerns require personal discussions.”

Hoekstra recommends managers be trained how to have these types of conversations. That means talking less and listening more, he says.

“When a leader conducts this type of conversation, they shouldn’t always respond to a question with an immediate answer. In many cases, people don't share their biggest concern right away. They may dip their toe in the water by sharing a concern that isn't as deep. They want to see how the leader is going to react. Instead of having a fast answer for everything, a better approach is for the leader to state their intentions up front: ‘My goal in this moment isn’t to give you answers, it's to draw out your questions and your concerns.’

“It’s critical for leaders to invest the time to surface and address personal concerns, or people will get stalled and won’t move forward in the change process.”

The next stage is implementation concerns. This is where people are trying to figure out how the change is going to be accomplished—what the plan is. “People will want to know that senior leaders they trust and respect are involved in the planning effort,” says Hoekstra.

“This stage presents a good opportunity for leaders to listen to people who appear to be resistant to the change. It’s important to understand their points of view—whether the plan is realistic, what they believe could go wrong, etc. Resisters can help fortify the plan by thinking through contingencies.

“Peer advocates can also play an important role during the information concern stage. People expect a senior leader to be supportive of the change, but they also appreciate hearing from credible peers who can help explain the change and why they believe in it. Senior leaders are smart to include peer advocates for the potential influence they can have with their peers.

“It’s great when leaders are able to include more people in the planning process, whether they be resisters, advocates, or undecideds (typically the largest group). The old saying ‘Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan’ is absolutely true.”

The next phase is impact concerns. “This begins after the change goes live. For example, let’s say a company is implementing a two-phase COVID-19 contingency plan, with salary reductions in the first phase and then a second course of action that depends on the how the first goes. People will want to know how phase one is going. Is it making a difference? Is it worth the sacrifice? Have we begun to hit our cost savings goals? What are we going to do next? It's important to communicate updates as quickly as possible during this stage.

“Once the change has reached a tipping point where most people are on board, the refinement concerns stage begins. At this point, people are realizing the change is working. The change leadership team can begin to delegate more responsibility to advocates to help sustain the change over time. One important task at this stage is to capture all the hard-won learnings that came about as a part of the change process.

“In challenging times like we’re facing now, some organizations will dramatically increase the speed with which they create new products or improve long neglected processes. Other companies will educate salespeople on new offerings at a much faster rate than before. It’s a leader's job to reiterate the lessons learned and call out the mindsets and skillsets that are expected in the future—keep them front and center. I remember one client whose company puts posters on display that highlight things they want people thinking about. One poster read: ‘What would you do if you weren't afraid?’ They used it as a reminder to stay innovative.

“During times of change, we can’t let fear get in the way of suggesting a new idea or trying a new way of doing things. Change is less painful when leaders address people’s natural, predictable stages of concern. Doing so will help them deal better with change in the short term and give them the change readiness to thrive in the future.”


Would you like to learn more about creating a change-capable organization? Join us for a free webinar!

Leading People through Change

Thursday, April 30, 2020, 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time

In this webinar, Blanchard change expert Judd Hoekstra will show you how to create a culture of resilience and agility during times of change. Participants will explore

  • The typical reasons changes derail;
  • How to have a conversation to surface people’s concerns with change;
  • What happens when concerns are not addressed; and
  • How to utilize the Change Scan process to assess progress, attitudes about the change, and levels of involvement.

Don’t miss this opportunity to create an agile, resilient organization and achieve both short-term results and long-term success.

Register today!

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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