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The one word employees dread hearing in the workplace

July 16, 2015, 2:30 PM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you lead a team during a time of transition? is written by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

For many, ‘change’ is a word dripping with negative connotations and peril. As managers, it’s important for us to recognize this innate anxiety and become great listeners to better decipher employee concerns. Successfully managing a team through a transition includes maintaining focus, communicating that change breeds opportunity and working to unify divergent priorities toward achieving a common goal.

Maintain focus
First and foremost, it’s important to put change into perspective. More often than not, change affects the daily routines of very few people. That’s why it’s important for staff to remain focused on what they can control and have a direct impact on. The rest is just noise. I call this the “play your position” approach. Similar to how players on a sports team can’t play more than one position at a time, workers should put their energy into optimizing their own role and contribution. If everyone does this, the employee, team and company will all be much better off.

Additionally, educating staff about what’s changing, why it’s changing and sharing the broader vision for the future is incredibly helpful in allaying fears. The following quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French poet, does a great job explaining this: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Similarly, a manager’s role is to keep their team focused on the end goal and help them understand how their work maps to the final destination.

This is where proper framing can make all the difference. For example, a daunting 10% layoff sounds completely different when you recognize that 90% of the people will be staying. The objective then becomes reassuring those in the 90% that they are secure, valued and will find opportunity at the company going forward.

Define ‘change’ as an opportunity
The presumption that change is bad needs to be addressed because so much about change is actually good for business. It creates new avenues for advancement and expands skill development. Further, it acts as a natural catalyst for spurring employee growth. It can launch an optimistic chapter where innovation is sought, ideas are encouraged and collaboration is prized.

While it can be tempting to hide under your desk until everything blows over, the prize-of-a-lifetime van might pull up with a bull horn and you would have missed it all. Help your employees recognize the opportunities before them: individually and collectively as a team. Align those with company goals and forge ahead with a renewed sense of purpose.

Transition brings out the best in some employees, giving them the opportunity to step-up and embrace new challenges. Others will step out, taking the opportunity to reassess their personal goals and evaluate whether an employment change is in order. Both present an opportunity. This is a natural process that can be minimized with effective management, but not eliminated completely. But as with everything, those departures create new opportunities for others.

Create win-win scenarios
With large-scale endeavors, such as reorganizations or acquisitions, managers can be faced with merging multiple teams with different personalities, priorities and goals. The trick then becomes educating all employees about the common purpose now shared, creating a win-win scenario all sides can buy into. Such large-scale undertakings are seldom taken for trivial purposes, so use the big vision to guide conversations and staffing decisions–intentionally co-mingle and cross-pollenate leadership roles between teams and companies. This forces all employees to consider the needs of others as paramount, fostering greater insight and understanding. Help all sides to recognize that their contributions matter and are critical to achieving the larger company objectives.

Managing change can be riddled with pitfalls. But when managers stay focused on the company vision and help employees recognize how their valuable contributions are needed to attain it, the transition will likely be a much smoother one.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you lead a team during a time of transition?

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The upsides of change at your company by Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.

How every boss should tell employees that change is comingby Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

3 ways to embrace change at your company by Kathy Collins, CMO of H&R Block.

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