How to thrive as a leader during organizational change

Written by Jaclyn Menendez, Ph.D., Project Consultant
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

No matter how structured your workplace seems, change is happening every day. Maybe it’s minor, like a shift in project goals, or someone new joining your team. Or maybe it’s major: a promotion, a new supervisor, or even a new company name. Major changes tend to be associated with much more complex reactions than minor changes, and require the guidance of strong leaders. But one of the most inspiring parts about major organizational change is that every person involved has the chance to be a leader. That’s because everyone has agency over how the change affects them. While you may be looking to your supervisor or the CEO for their cues on how to interpret the news, remember that major change is a chance to demonstrate your own leadership ability. From a psychological perspective, the process breaks down into the following steps:

1. Internal processing (emotions and attitudes)

Even when our behaviors feel unpredictable or instantaneous, there is internal processing at the heart of any reaction. Strong leaders are aware of this, and they actively self-monitor their attitudes and emotional reactions before externally responding. Think back to some of your best supervisors or leaders. Were they prone to irrational or emotional outbursts? Or did they seem to have control over their emotions, even during times of major change or stress?

If this doesn’t sound like a current strength of yours, don’t fret: you can get better at monitoring your own reactions and being in control of how you process information. Even great leaders have to practice their skills, and this area is no exception. One of the simplest ways to turn this into a habit is to hold yourself accountable by asking self-reflective questions:

  • What exactly am I feeling?
  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • Is this a productive way to feel?
  • How can I put a positive perspective on this?
  • What kind of reaction will best support my team?
  • How can I get there authentically?

Over time this checklist will become more automatic and you’ll be able to orientate yourself as a leader instead of getting dragged down by negative or anxious thoughts.

2. External processing (action and behavior)

Once you’ve gained a stronger grasp over your internal processing, you can demonstrate the actions and behavior of a leader. In psychology, the Theory of Planned Behavior (Azjen, 1991) is a famously supported concept about why we behave the way we do. It basically states that our actions are a direct result of our attitudes and our perceived control over the situation. It may sound obvious, but it’s a reminder that being a strong leader starts internally: without the right attitude or the belief that you can make a difference, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to view you as a leader in times of change.

Once you do have the leadership-oriented attitude and a belief that you can make a positive difference, you’ll be angled to make a real impact. These behaviors and actions are usually preceded by a thoughtful approach to the following questions:

  • What does my team need right now? When in doubt, think of those whom you are leading. What kind of reaction do they need to see? What kind of behavior will inspire them to adapt a similarly productive attitude? Don’t think of how you personally prefer to be led, but instead incorporate the unique needs and styles of your team. Even if you’re not in a supervisor role, you can reach out to others – even other people outside of your team, depending on the scope of the change – and establish your ability to steer them through challenging times.
  • What does my team NOT need right now? While it’s important to identify your team’s needs, don’t go overboard. If you have gossip to share or information that won’t necessarily add anything productive to their mindsets, think carefully before sharing it. A leader doesn’t have the luxury of talking through their worries with the team or sharing every detail that they hear. Remember your root goal of leadership and stick to behaviors that emulate this concept. If you can demonstrate restraint while still keeping others informed and uplifted, the team will trust your judgement and naturally look to you as a leader during organizational change.

Even those who thrive on variety can be thrown by an organizational change. Use those uncertain times to practice your leadership skills and rise to the occasion. When you own your attitude and choose mindful leadership behaviors, change can bring out the best in you.

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