While good change leadership is about more than communication, launching a new change and getting your team on board is all about communication! This seems obvious, yet communication often breaks down, especially when it comes to responding to tough questions. In my experience coaching leaders, none were ever thinking, “I’m not going to communicate about a change because it’s better for my people not to have information.” Instead, communication breakdowns happen because leaders feel they lack the time, the right words, or answers to communicate with confidence. Unfortunately, all these reasons have more to do with what the leader wants and needs (to have the answers figured out), not what the team wants and needs (information, even if incomplete, to reduce uncertainty). It can be especially hard if the leader is not entirely on board yet themselves and they understand or even agree with, the concerns or tough questions they’re anticipating their team might ask.
Let’s look at three tips to help you respond to tough questions.
Tip 1: Engaging tough questions with greater confidence starts with your mindset. Approaching any question, but especially tough ones with curiosity, as opposed to defensiveness or fear, will make a difference in how the conversation goes. Instead of feeling pressure to have an answer or being responsible for shifting team emotions in a more positive direction, you can become curious and seek even more information. In other words, you can shift to a curious mindset by telling yourself, “I can start a conversation and see how many tough questions or concerns I can get to the surface. This means shifting my goal from having answers to uncovering questions or concerns. I’ll know I am successful when my team has shared all their questions and concerns, including a bunch I can’t answer… yet. As a change leader I can tolerate the discomfort of my team’s emotions and not having answers, and still have a conversation.”
Tip 2: Prepare for tough questions in advance by asking yourself, “What might make this change difficult for my team? What, exactly, might I or they have trouble with, and what might they be losing?” This is a time to prepare for tough questions and reactions from those who will feel a loss of some type. Use this information and write down any specific questions or concerns you expect to hear from your team. Some changes are bigger than others, but no change is easy. One leader I worked with said, “I am always surprised about people’s reactions to a change. Even when I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, someone on my team does.”
Tip 3: Prepare for specific questions by focusing on questions that cause you the most anxiety, and have possible responses ready during the team conversation. While every change situation is different, below are three of the most common tough questions, and further down, ideas that the best leaders use to respond.
Three common change questions:
- Why do we need to make this change when things are going well?
- What will the change mean to me?
- What if I disagree with the change?
Ways to respond in one-to-one or team conversations:
- “That’s a great question. I can share my thoughts with you, but given what you know about the change so far, what are you thinking?” Before you jump in, get some more information from the person asking the question. They may not have all the information, may have misunderstood what’s been communicated, or simply need the time and space to share what’s on their mind. Depending on what you discover, you can more accurately tailor your reply.
- “Given what I’ve shared, what impact do you see? What concerns you at this point?” It’s important to let team members have their reactions – they can feel a variety of feelings and still get on board with a change. You don’t need to act as if their emotion is something you need to fix or change. Resistance is normal, so treat it as part of the experience, not something that is indicative of a problem. That said, resistance is not a permanent state. If you have had a number of conversations and your team member is still not behaving in ways that show you they are on board with the change, then you’ll need to talk about what you are not seeing or hearing that is telling you they are not on board with the change.
- In addition to responding with curiosity (vs. defensiveness), you can say “I don’t know” if you don’t have the answers yet. Always acknowledge when someone raises a good question/point and commit to getting answers back to them if you don’t know right away. Your ability to actively listen and affirm what people are saying or asking matters just as much as providing a specific answer.
Help each team member understand that just because they don’t have all the control (or information) they’d like in this situation doesn’t mean they don’t have any. Help them focus on what they can control, namely the choices they make in response to the change, which will also help them take action that is helpful for them and you as their leader.
Dr. Elizabeth Moran is an experienced leader, executive coach, and author of the upcoming book, Forward: Leading Your Team Through Change. Partnering with leaders and teams from Fortune 500 companies to technology start-ups, Dr. Moran has successfully supported large and small-scale transformation through practical advice and actions that simplify leading through change. Prior to starting Elizabeth Moran Transformation, she was Vice President of Global Talent Development at ADP. She also held leadership, team, and talent development roles at Bloomberg, Lehman Brothers, Getty Images, and Time Inc. In conjunction with her vast experience in technology, fintech, and financial services, Dr. Moran has worked with leaders and teams in the professional services, pharmaceutical, energy, government, and non-profit sectors.
Dr. Moran holds master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, a PCC-level coaching certification from the International Coaching Federation, and a certification as a Neuro-Transformational Coach.
By Dr. Elizabeth Moran