How to Lead When the Pace of Change Feels Relentless

BY Emily Nonko | November 05, 2021

Corporate America has arguably navigated more change and disruption in the past year and a half than it had in the previous decade–and the need for radical adaptation isn’t going away. As Harvard Business Review reported recently, increasing volatility, complexity and rapid change is becoming the expected state of things. That means companies need new ways to lead, mobilize their employee base, make decisions, and create solutions. The stakes are high and adoption can’t happen fast enough at a time when workers are quitting their jobs in droves.

Even though the pace of change has stepped up, there are solid strategies to prepare workplaces for the long term. Leaders can help employees be ready to adapt, even if they don’t know exactly what’s ahead. And workers can thrive in uncertainty, as opposed to simply surviving it. To understand how, From Day One spoke with Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of the coaching company Bravely; Homa Bahrami, an expert on organizational flexibility and senior lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business; and Sabina Nawaz, a CEO coach and former Microsoft HR leader. Their advice:

Train Managers to Be Vulnerable  

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I can’t tell you how many conversations I had about this inability to separate the personal from the professional,” said Sheehan. As the months moved forward, Bravely saw a 700% increase on coaching sessions about stress and burnout.

Given what employees have been through, the experts all agreed that leadership must be vulnerable, honest, and empathetic–as opposed to stand-offish, strict, or all-knowing. Said Sheehan: “Companies should be leaning into training their managers with vulnerability, making sure they’re not just focused on productivity.” Bahrami warned against management trying to calm workers with wishful platitudes. “I see some leaders try to pretend that everything will be fine and things will go back to normal, but that isn’t the truth,” she said. “You can say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘We’re exploring this.’”

Provide Frequent Updates and Communication

While leaders need to be honest and admit they don’t know what the future holds, they can step up by providing regular updates along the way. “You can say, ‘I don’t know how the future may unfold, but we’ll have a live town hall during the last Friday of every month and will give you regular updates,’” suggested Bahrami. Memos will be less effective than live spaces where employees can ask questions, express concerns, and engage with leadership on what the company knows and what it doesn’t.

Tap Into the Collective Intelligence

Every employee has faced distinct challenges and gained insights from navigating the pandemic. The key is to tap into those personalized insights to help inform company decisions–a bottom-up approach. Bahrami suggested tapping into employees’ sentiments and collective experiences by asking what worked, and what didn’t, as they’ve navigated their own personal transitions.

Bravely, for example, utilizes individual coaching to tap into employees’ unique experiences and goals within their companies; that feedback gives leadership a more nuanced understanding of their employee base. “While data is never attached to you, it’ll be aggregated with other data to start to identify themes and trends that are happening within the organization,” Sheehan said.

Nawaz recommended the adaptive leadership style developed by Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. “One of the ways to move to adaptive thinking is to move away from an expert-based model,” she said. “In organizations it’s natural to look to people in positions of authority to provide us with protection, order and direction, but we cannot provide that in times of uncertainty, so we should look to answers within the collective.”

Offer Coaching for All

Coaching has traditionally been reserved for executive leadership teams. But it’s an effective tool to help employees navigate change once coaching becomes an equitable, individualized resource across the company, said Sheehan. “Resources like training or mentorship are usually prescriptive, but what about those times an employee is suffering from imposter syndrome or feels nervous about going into a meeting with their boss and asking for what they need to be successful?” All-access coaching provides a more flexible resource that’s driven by the needs of the employee. “Employees feel like they have an action plan, they feel positive about their situation, they’re more likely to go forward and address their needs,” Sheehan said.

Atomize Employee Workload

Companies have long relied on long-term business forecasts and annual performance reviews to help shape the future. “That’s just old thinking,” said Nawaz. “In a crisis, we are doing things day by day.” She suggests that companies atomize work, planning, budgeting, forecasting–just about everything–to help employees digest their responsibilities in smaller chunks. Companies can place a premium on short-term learning to inform the next step, which Nawaz characterizes as a “more experimental mindset.” Experiments in small steps, in the short term, reduce the risk of making larger errors and having to undo entrenched thinking.

Create Space for Change 

Change is exhausting. And when unpredictability keeps popping up in employee’s schedules, it can leave a workforce that feels like it’s perpetually behind. In that vein, Nawaz recommends that companies encourage all employees, from leadership down, “to create and save buffer space for change,” she said. Leaders can work with team members to understand how much of their workday is interrupted by the unexpected. From those learnings, employees can set aside blocks of time–maybe one free hour, a few days a week–as a container to hold that unexpected work.

Embark on ‘Discovery Missions’

Many employees are trained to identify the problem, the solution, and then move forward. Times of upheaval offer opportunity for what Nawaz called “discovery missions.” She defines this as taking time to broaden your perspective of the issue, investigate the perceived problem, and discuss potential paths forward. “Again, we’re dealing with uncertainty–we don’t know what the answer is and we’re wasting a lot of time when we quickly determine what the issue is.”

Bahrami stressed the importance of offering employees options as they navigate the future: “Let the employees participate in selecting the option that suits them, and make sure managers are fair, equitable, and consistent as they develop the options.”

Frame Change as an Opportunity 

“Change can be perceived either as a benefit or as a threat, a positive or a negative,” as Bahrami put it. “During transformational times, people can look at the glass half full, not half empty.” She recalled the abrupt switch to online teaching during the lockdown, which offered an opportunity for educators to learn about new ways of teaching and engaging with students online, and develop new capabilities in the process.

If change is framed as an opportunity, and employees are empowered to succeed and be honest about their needs, it’s the beginning of a strong framework to navigate the unknowable.

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this story, Bravely. You can read more here about the company's philosophy of coaching.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.


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