insight magazine

Leading During Difficult Change

How real leaders effectively manage people’s feelings, facts, and futures in the face of change. By Jay Scherer | Digital Exclusive - 2017


“Effective leaders help others to understand the necessity of change and to accept a common vision of the desired outcome.” Dr. John Kotter, Harvard Business School

Constant change makes no sense, really, but in the reality of business today, change is constant. Our truth is that change has become business as usual, making ‘change’ an almost meaningless buzzword. What isn’t meaningless, though, is your ability to lead change; it’s at the core of your leadership success.

So, while change equals business, and I should have probably called this article “The Secret to Leading Business,” the success of your business hinges on how change is managed and executed.

“Change has a considerable impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better.” King Whitney Jr.

Do you have a tough assignment ahead of you that will create significant change in your organization? A restructuring, merger, or layoff? A change in strategy or focus that will impact your team? To effectively lead people through difficult changes, it’s important to understand how each person reacts to change.

Thanks to Bill Bridges’ timeless book, “Transitions,” we understand that personal change occurs in three phases: an ending, a middle he calls the Neutral Zone, and a new beginning. The ending is marked by strong emotions for most people; the Neutral Zone is marked by uncertainty and a need for relevant facts; and the new beginning offers hope for a positive future.

The challenge for you as a business leader is that everyone reacts differently to change. Some of us get hung up on the ending, looking back, wishing for the past, wondering why things must change (late adapters to change). Some of us approach change with hesitation, unsure of how to proceed and uncertain of the possibilities (undecided about change). And some of us embrace change and get excited about the prospects of a positive future (early adapters to change).

Of course, it’s never quite this simple. It’s a continuum. We all move from phase to phase at different times because of who we are, our past experiences, how we view work, and how significant the change is to us personally.

In this context, I encourage you to think about each member of your team, how each of them will react to the coming changes, and how you can support each of them throughout the process. Sometimes effective change management means leading change one person at a time.

As the person your team members will turn to for guidance and advice, focusing on the “Three F’s”—feelings, facts, and future—will help you meaningfully lead through difficult change.


Helping your team members process their feelings during the initial “ending” phase sets the tone for the entire change process. As a leader, you should expect and acknowledge a mix of emotions depending on the circumstances. Your biggest mistake would be ignoring or minimizing the feelings of your team.

Instead, lead by openly discussing what is going on. Asking questions like “How are you feeling about all this?” sets the example that you’re there to help your people get through this time, showing that you care about both them and the company.

When you understand the emotions that are most prevalent and relevant for each team member, like surprise, resistance, anger, sadness, fear, optimism, or relief, it makes it easier for you to provide feedback, communicate change, and deliver consistent messaging that also points out the positives of the change. The end goal is to help your team members feel more in control of a situation that they had no control over.


Providing the facts of the situation is your next step in leading through change. After accepting that it’s happening, your people will begin to wonder and worry about what they’ll be doing, what is going to change for them, and how they should deal with it all. This is the middle, Neutral Zone phase, which is marked by confusion about the future. To truly support your team during this phase, your focus should be on reducing uncertainty.

Providing as much information as you can helps builds trust. A good leadership practice is scheduling brief meetings with each team member to clarify information and role requirements, discuss needs, and refocus them on achieving shared success—it’s a win-win for the individual and the organization. Explaining the specifics of why and how the change is occurring, and allowing for questions, will help your team get its arms around what is going on.

What’s more, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Leaders, to their own detriment, sometimes avoid interaction and communication because they don’t know the answers to many questions about the future. It’s ok to admit that you don’t fully know things—it may even help to build your relationships. The point here is to be more available, not less—get out of your office and talk with your people. And, possibly more importantly, continue to listen, listen, and listen.


It’s your role as a leader in your organization to help build a positive future for the business and the people behind it. This makes it imperative that you help each person on your team clearly see a meaningful new beginning that they can engage in and be inspired by. Regardless of ranks, we all need something to believe in, to latch onto; we all need clear roles and career paths that meet business needs—and our own personal and professional needs.

In the new beginning phase, it’s important to continue regularly communicating the benefits of change. If you’re positive about the future—meaning you understand the positives of change, believe in them, and communicate them—your team will buy into this mentality and energy.

With an aligned and engaged team, setting expectations and short-term goals together becomes easier. To further ensure a positive future, continue practicing good leadership that builds and honors strong work processes, encourages strategic delegation, instills open communication and trust, and encourages team members to be accountable and innovative. And as you succeed together, remember to always recognize successes, even if they are small.

What About You?

As much as good leadership and change management require focusing on your team members, it’s important to recognize that leading through difficult change is also going to impact you. You too will be impacted by change, and there are some key questions to ask yourself that will help you focus on also taking care of yourself:

• Do I understand my role during this transition period?
• Where will I most struggle with fulfilling my role?
• How will my day-to-day change?
• What do I want to accomplish during this change?
• What do I want my people to say?
• How will I stay in step with other members of the management team?
• What will I do to achieve positive results?

Change is often difficult and different for everyone, including you as a business leader. The best leaders think about everyone’s potential reaction to change, accounting for their feelings, the facts, and the future, and then develop plans to successfully navigate through change. So, what’s your plan to be a real leader in the face of constant, and often difficult, change?

Jay Scherer is the president of Chicago-based Scherer Executive Advisors, a specialized coaching firm with deep experience helping executives achieve business objectives and career goals.

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