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Navigating Change Initiatives: 3 Leadership Skills to Master

Aug 25, 2023
Vanderbilt Business’ Ray Friedman shares 3 leadership skills you can flex when navigating change initiatives

By Arial Starks

Pictured: Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Chair, Professor of Management at Vanderbilt Business

Ray Friedman

If you stick around an organization long enough, you will undoubtedly be faced with periods of transition. Whether it be shifts in policies and procedures or changes in leadership, change within any organization is both necessary and inevitable for success. There are many steps you can take to ensure you are equipped with the leadership skills to navigate your team through periods of change. Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Chair, Professor of Management at Vanderbilt Business, shares 3 mistakes leaders can avoid when navigating change initiatives ahead of his Executive Education short program Leading Change

1. Awareness: What is Clear to You is Not Always Clear to Others

Change can be difficult for anyone at any level of an organization. As someone in a leadership position, it is your role to be proactive and anticipate that everyone may not be eager to adopt change. One common mistake leaders can make during periods of transition is assuming that their vision is clear to others. Friedman says leaders will most likely be met with less resistance when they provide their team with a plan that is clearly thought out and explained. 

“Leaders tend to assume that people will be able to keep up with whatever they want, understand the changes, and will be committed to their leadership, but there is a different psychological dynamic going on for most employees,” Friedman said. 

Friedman says it is important to realize that as the leader, you have had more time than your team has had to process the changes you are implementing by the time you are communicating a plan to them. 

“Most likely as a leader going through a time of transition, the changes were at some point a shock to you too. Just because you have come to understand and accept it, does not mean people will jump to that stage right away when you tell them.”

2. Attentiveness: Monitoring Team Dynamics During and After Change InitiativesPictured: Ray Friedman Friedman teaching students that leaders will most likely be met with less resistance when they provide their team with a plan that is thought out and explained.

Another common mistake leaders can make when navigating change initiatives is not being attentive to their team. A major key to successful leadership is being knowledgeable about who you are leading. Friedman says leaders need to know what motivates the people they are trying to influence. 

“One of the key things leaders need to learn is how to decipher who is on board and why or why not,” he said. “When trying to implement change initiatives, you have to know who are your supporters, who are your resisters, and who your bystanders are, because they are all going to be there.”

Friedman explains that while leaders see all of the positives change can bring about, they should keep in mind that for their employees, change can also equal a sense of loss.

“Change can represent a loss of reputation, skills, maybe even position, and all of those factors can create resistance,” Friedman said. “So, to get any change process to work well, it just takes a lot of forethought, energy, and care on the manager’s part. You just really have to understand the psychology of the people you are trying to influence.”

3. Patience: Navigating the Ebb and Flow of Transitions Takes Time

Navigating change is not a linear process. There will be ups and downs, some will adapt to change quicker than others, and most everyone will be experiencing some sort of learning curve. As the leader, it is vital not to rush the learning process for your team, because it could result in further resistance and overall poor team morale. Friedman encourages leaders to put themselves in their team’s shoes since most leaders have likely been on both sides of change initiatives at some point in their careers. 

“Think back to the times when you were on the receiving end of change and what factors you experienced in that process,” he said.

Friedman says that for those who are new to leadership, it is vital to build confidence around navigating change. 

“There is a change curve in the assessment of the psychological experience of the change leader, which often leads to a phase of depression and a sense of failure when natural resistance happens,” he explained. “I think the first time you go through that, you think ‘It’s all on me, and I’ve blown it’ but that difficult period is always going to be there. You have to keep faith in yourself to sustain your efforts through those dips.” 

Friedman adds that with changes, leaders can expect a bit of a lull in performance before they can get to the point of success and accomplishment. “Your team is behind you, but it may require you to have more patience with them and attempt to understand them.” 

To learn more about how you can boost your leadership skills to navigate change initiatives with confidence, you can enroll in the Vanderbilt Business Executive Education Short Program, Leading Change, taught by Friedman.

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