Letting Go–The First Stage of Leading Change

(Part 1 of 3)

A project manager reported to me, “My team was very excited about our software upgrade.  We were having a lot of issues with our old system.” 

“I hear a ‘but’ coming,” I responded. 

“Yes, even though we noticed immediate improvements, some were reluctant to use many of the new features.  I guess people just don’t like change.”

Change consultant, Bill Bridges, explains that it is the transition, not the change, that some resist.  And Richards offers three stages of transition to the new:  letting go, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.

Whether change is perceived as good or bad, all changes require that people let go of something they are familiar with—a daily routine, contact with a peer, a meeting time, a routine report, etc. At this stage, people may feel fearful, saddened, frustrated or uncertain.

The first step in engaging members to accept the new is to help them let go of the old.  Encourage talk about memories and stories of the old while providing meaningful training and support for the new.  Most of us fear the unknown.  Show how skills and knowledge of the old will be essential in making the new work.  Accept that struggles in letting go are real.

A Three-Part Prescription to Burnout

“It is no fun going to work anymore,” a manager said to me. 

“What has changed?” I asked.

“We have more business than we can handle.  Our supply chain is clogged.  We are struggling with remote work.  Employees are leaving and it is hard to hire people. It is frustrating, sometimes depressing.  I wake up tired and think it may be time to retire.”   

“I believe you may be experiencing symptoms of burnout.  How are you going to deal with it?”

“We need to resolve some of our work issues, but I sure don’t see a path forward.”

Deep personal involvement when struggling to meet excessive demands without energy replenishment often results in burnout.  However, energy replenishment may be a healthier approach than working harder and longer on work issues.

Physical care, spiritual growth, and social engagement can become the energizer bunny for many. 

Our bodies function better when we regularly use all the parts and feed it with proper nutrients.   Motion is lotion and food is fuel. 

A meaningful spiritual life comforts humans during trying times.   

We are herd animals. Fullfilling interactions with family and friends can restock our will to persist.   

The Grapevine or Immediate Supervisor as Sources of Information?

“We’ve surveyed our employees,” a manager said, “and asked them what they think their managers could do better.”

“Let me guess their Number One suggestion,” I responded.


“I’m guessing your employees wanted managers to be better communicators.”

“How did you know?”

“Communication is always Number One.”

Employees want to know anything and everything that may impact their work life, and they want to know it the instant management knows it.  However, employees’ desired sources of information are sometimes different from their actual sources. 

Research by professors Snyder and Morris in their article, “Organizational Communication and Performance,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, revealed that employees’ primary sources of information were immediate supervisor, the grapevine, company policies and small group meetings.

When asked how they prefer to get information, employees responded:  immediate supervisor, small group meetings, top executives and company policies.  The grapevine and social media were their least preferred sources.

Effective leaders realize that they never NOT communicate.  Failure to fully reveal changes in plans, strategies and processes spur the creation of lightening fast rumor mills.  Effective leaders spend considerable time in 1:1 and small group meetings communicating face-to-face.

Individuals, Not Groups, Make Key Decisions

A manager said to me, “I am responsible for selecting new products to sell in our retail outlets.  Since there are many options and it is hard to predict which items will sell best, I ask my team members for their input.” 

“Do you usually get agreement on which product lines to buy?” I asked.

“Almost never do we get strong agreements.  In fact, sometimes our meetings drag on much longer than I like as members become strongly invested in debating their opinions.”

“Then, how do you decide?”

“Eventually, I just have to make the call.”

“Do your team members accept your decisions?”

“For the most part.  I tell them upfront I want to hear their opinions; but since I will be accountable, I want to reserve the right to make the final decision.”

Although we hear a lot about participative decision making, most important decisions are made by individuals.  Of course, wise leaders seek counsel from experts and those responsible for executing decisions.  Both experts and practitioners, because they have differing experiences and values, seldom agree completely on complex decisions.

A good model is to approach your team with a suggested, tentative decision; seek their feedback and select options that improve the decision.    

Intense Discussions Benefit from Careful Wording

Although frowns, gestures, and tone make up much of the meaning in intense face-to-face communications, words still matter.  Professor Jim Detert, in his book Choosing Courage, identifies phrases that are more likely to inflame rather calm intense communications.  

Below, I have paired phrases to consider avoiding with other ways of stating similar expressions.

Avoid:  Clearly, you did not read my report on this issue.

Better:  I understand you have a different opinion.  May I summarize the information I used to support my view?

Avoid:  I would never make such a statement.

Better:  That sounds unlike something I might say.  My intention was to . . .

Avoid:  You should be more specific in your status reports.

Better:  I feel more confident in my understanding when your status reports include dates and numbers.

Avoid:  Your continued negligence in responding to customer inquiries really makes me angry.

Better:  I think our mission is better served when customers receive timely responses.

Avoid:  Your interpretation is wrong and in clear violation of our policy.

Better:  My reading leads to a different interpretation, can you fill me in on what you base your view on?

In general, avoid phrases the other party might interpret as attacks and replace them with attempts to better understand.

Effective Leaders Water Where the Flowers Grow

Dennis puts off assignments and rushes to finish them at the last minute, often with errors. 

Dennis’ manager said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with Dennis.  He does well for awhile but always seems to slip back into his old habits.”

How much coaching does it take to cure Dennis’s missteps?  When should a manager realize that additional training and retraining is ineffective?

On rare occasions, low performers will blossom after many hours of coaching and mentoring; but face it, not every employee can be effectively coached.  Here is a reality check—you are more likely to hit three jackpot symbols on a slot machine than you are to change persistently, low performers into reliable, go-to team players. 

Why?  The cause of low performance is more likely a talent issue than a motivation or training issue.  Even the simplest tasks require some level of talent—knack, genetic disposition, gift—for reliable performance.  And you cannot train talent.

How do effective mentors know when to continue coaching and when to look at other options?  As the saying goes, “Water where the flowers grow.”  If employees show quick and sticking improvements, carry on.  If not, continued coaching equals frustration for both parties.

“Manage Them Up or Manage Them Out

“How was your week?” I asked a manager.

“Not so good.”

“Were you dealing with demanding customers?”

“No.  But I spent a lot of time with three of my employees who either made mistakes, missed deadlines, irritated co-workers, wasted effort on low-priority tasks or all of the above.” 

In surveys, I’ve asked hundreds of managers who have recommended termination of an employee if, after reflection, they thought it was a mistake. Almost one hundred percent say their recommendation to terminate was sound, even after months or years have passed.

My observation suggests that we seldom terminate nonperformers too early, but we frequently allow them to linger too long.  Time is a leader’s most important asset, and time spent coaching, cajoling or coddling nonproductive team members is seldom a good investment.  And some studies show that marginal performers take almost twenty percent of their leaders’ time.

The old slogan of “manage employees up or manage them out” may sound harsh but is probably a good practice.  Of course, coach and train employees to get better (manage them up).  For those who perform below standard but do not improve, work with your HR partners to remove them (manage them out).