The Harassed Manager's Guide to Managing Change and Surviving

Jane Woods
Owner | Changing People
18th February 2020
Member roleChamber member

A short, light hearted and practical look at managing staff through change, with practical, down to earth exercises that work – and no jargon!

This is dedicated to all of those front line managers and small business owners faced with an organisational or business change to implement. Whether it’s of your making or not you will have to take the flak, even when you’re feeling as fed up as everyone else. Read this when you are expected to know all the answers, when you must look in control, even when you’re screaming inside; this is your book!

“Cometh the hour cometh the man” – or woman!

OK, so the powers that be have just told you about their latest initiative and how wonderful the world will be once their new plan/reorganisation/merger/ acquisition is put into place. You front line managers, they tell you, have nothing to worry about because a team of consultants are coming in to manage the change and you will get all the information you need as and when. Just go back and let your team know that change is afoot, oh and by the way, don’t let productivity fall off and keep everyone happy, absence levels down and all the staff on board with the new plan!

Or maybe you are the owner of a small business and have just announced some significant changes to your business like relocation, or a new customer care system. At this stage you may know where you want to get to but not be entirely sure of the route. And your employees are looking at you for answers…

Of course, this being the real world your team or employees probably already knows that something is afoot and will have been discussing it amongst themselves for ages. Already the rumour mill will have been grinding on. It is really important that you set the right tone right from the beginning even if you may think there is nothing you can usefully say at the moment. But can you just say you don’t know yet?

No Creative Speechifying

Well, yes you can actually. If you start with the ‘creative speechifying’ now you will only tie yourself up in knots later on when it becomes obvious that you don’t know. It is really important at this early stage to establish your credibility so I suggest the following:


1) Get everyone together as soon as you can. Whenever it is at all possible do difficult communication face to face, or rather your face to their faces. E mail is cowardly and open to misinterpretation, doctoring, and can be sent across the world in the blink of an eye. Don’t do it.

2) It is important now to establish the tone for all future discussions so be as honest as you are can. Tell them that you will meet with them regularly to update them and take questions (because you will, won’t you) and as far as you are able you will tell them everything you can. Tell them that you will invite questions both now and after they have had time to absorb the information.

3) If they are very quiet at this stage don’t be misled. They are probably in shock and have not yet fully absorbed what they have been told. When you leave the room you will probably hear a lot of discussion immediately strike up behind you but don’t take it personally. Never take it personally. You are the immediate face of management and their representative on earth so you will get some flak but don’t take it personally. This will require some practice….

4) While you still have some energy set up your own support network. You will need it, preferably with some managers or business owners in the same position. Make spaces in your diary now and commit to getting together regularly to share information, coping strategies and handkerchiefs. Go to that next business/management networking event and find someone with experience of this. Or use formal support like a coach.

5) Look up the details of any staff counselling/welfare service or anything offered locally. Even if you don’t need it someone will soon. You might even give them a call to check that someone has remembered to warn them of the likely increase in calls to their service. Maybe even arrange a date to get them in to tell your team what they can offer? If you run a small business try your local support group or Business Link to see if they can offer anything.

6). Go home. You’ve had a tiring day.

The Theory of Change

There are several well documented and researched stages that people experience when they are undergoing a change of some sort. A visit to your nearest library or a trawl of the internet will reveal so many books about change that your head will spin. 

But you don’t have to read them at all unless you are really keen. Basically this is what they say:

Change is awful, few people like it unless they have initiated it. 

People are shocked that their world is not staying the same.

They don’t believe it is happening and try to ignore it. 

Then they realise it is happening and get frustrated and cross as it dawns on them that things will actually change. 

Sometimes, depending on the severity of the change, people can get very fed up, even depressed and absence levels may rise. 

After a variable period of time they start to think about what the change means and decide to try out a few ideas to make sense of it for them. Depending on the circumstances this phase goes on for ages or not too long.

A few people embrace change from day one, some try and ignore it, and some resist/sabotage it.

It’s best to find out who they are!

Give the embracers a role.

Keep telling the ignorers what is happening.

Keep an eye on the resistors.

And finally people move on with the change.

The Change Curve

Probably the most famous piece of work is that done by Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross who put together a simple curve, see above.

Dr Kubler-Ross’ research was carried out specifically in relation to people who had terminal illness and were anticipating the ultimate loss. Fortunately few organisational or business changes are that serious, but don’t underestimate the impact it will have on people. If people have had lots of personal change, a work change might just tip them over the edge.

Any change usually means a loss of some sort and most people will experience a variation on the change reactions described by Kubler-Ross; just the intensity differs. People tend to prefer the devil they know so even if it is something they have moaned about for ages they are still likely to mourn its passing. That mourning may take the form of making life difficult for anyone trying to introduce something new.


If you have told your staff about the impending changes over the last few days then it’s likely (but not compulsory) that they will be moving onto denial about now. Unfortunately for you, however, they will not all pass neatly through these stages at the same time and even more unfortunately you are not immune from going through this cycle as well. This makes it problematic if you are in denial too…

The sorts of things you are likely to be hearing from your staff are ‘well, it’ll never happen’, ‘we’ve heard it all before’, and ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’. And so on. Actually, this is not a bad form of coping because, let’s face it, sometimes the changes do evaporate without trace if the merger fails, the bank won’t release any more funds, or Government or State regulations change. 

Practical Steps in Change

1) At this stage there is not a lot you can usefully do except repeat the information you have already given them. Every book on managing changeemphasises the importance of good communication but sometimes it’s really as simple as saying the same thing over and over. 

You may have heard that some doctors, when breaking really bad news to their patients, actually record it so patients can take it away with them. They do this because they know that certain words trigger a kind of aural black out effect, and patients don’t hear anything beyond that trigger word. Employees can react in the same way when they hear the word change or reorganisation. They stop listening and their minds are leaping ahead to possible implications for them.

2) Of course, I am not suggesting that you start walking round recording everything because that will really feed any feelings of paranoia. But don’t assume, however, that because you had that big meeting yesterday and told them the news that the job is done. It isn’t; half the group will have heard one thing and half will have heard another and rumour will fill in any gaps between. 

Also, some will still be shocked, especially if it appears that they will be particularly affected. This can happen by the way, even if the news is good. Generally speaking when the news is positive people go through the cycle a bit more quickly but they can still experience it.

3) I said in the last chapter that you mustn’t send e mails or letters, now you can- but only if you’ve had a face to faces meeting to give the principle news. If all your staff has access to whatever medium you choose to use, e mail, and a notice in the tea room etc, it is OK to repeat what you told them in a written form. In fact, it is positively helpful for people to be able to check out what they think they heard from you at a time when they feel ready to absorb it. So follow up your verbal messages with the same message in a written form.

4) A word of warning – be very clear and direct in your written communication. It may come back to haunt you at a later stage if you get it wrong. If you can’t be specific use phrases like ‘at this stage my understanding is…but I am waiting for clarification, etc ’. 

Remember, actual words account for a very small proportion of how information is received so choose carefully and don’t try to be funny in e-mails. Research has shown that messages are received in the following proportions: words account for 7%, the voice sends 38%, with 55% being the overall appearance. The latter refers more to body language than an Armani suit (although in some circumstances that can be appropriate). Keep it factual and appropriate to what they need to know.

Don’t think because you can’t tell them the whole story at this stage, that it’s better not to tell them anything because it isn’t. They will make it up and what they make up is often worse than what is happening and will very quickly lower morale and affect your credibility. Magical thinking comes into play.

Magical thinking is what children do when they don’t know a whole story. They make up bits to fit what they do know but usually with themselves at centre stage. Employees do exactly the same thing. What they don’t know they invent and invariably they will create a scenario which is bad news for them.

5) A point about communication; as the change process rolls on there will no doubt be many bulletins either from you, if you are a small business, or from the executive team if you are employed. It could be helpful to have special folder for these, kept in date order, including all your own communications with staff. This should be kept in a place easily accessible to all, like by the kettle, or on the universal web.

In fact, the wall by the kettle or water cooler is a really good place for things you want read as people are often captive there for several minutes at a time and will idly flick through things. But try not to cause a health and safety hazard as this is not good for morale…and take it down when it curls up in the steam.

6) And while we’re talking about putting things on the wall, think about putting the change curve in an appropriate place too. It can work really successfully and allow staff to identify for themselves what stage they are at. 

Whole teams can go through the stages collectively and I have found it really helpful to ask them where they think they are at the beginning of each meeting. You could even use post it notes or a magnetic board. It is a relatively safe way of letting people talk about how they are feeling and you might find yourself referring to it at meetings about the change.

Grow a Thick Skin-Fast


This is the third part of the change cycle and the one that can be the most difficult to deal with. 

As the leader/manager/owner you might now be coming in for quite a bit of flak as the impact begins to be felt. Whenever there is a change on the cards it means something is being lost and people experience this loss in different ways. 

Typically it will show itself as resistance when any suggestions will be met with an indirect or direct refusal to cooperate. You may find that old hurts and angers you thought were long buried start to surface and arguments abound.

It’s important to remember that it is usually an emotional response so don’t expect appealing to logic to work, it won’t.

Practical Steps with Teams During Change

1) It is helpful at this stage to spend a bit of time thinking about your staff. If you can, think about each individual in your team and try to assess the impact of the change on each of them. It will probably vary from person to person but you should be able to get a fairly reasonable sense of how each person will respond by considering how they have reacted in the past.

Much more difficult is to prepare for is the depth of their reaction and it won’t necessarily correspond to the level of the impact of the change on them. It will be linked to their previous experiences of change and loss, some of which you will know nothing about.

2) An important rule at this stage is, again, don’t take it personally! You are likely to be the focus for some of the anger and frustration so try not to get caught up in justifications and discussions which only add to people’s frustrations. The anger is rarely able to be directed at the source of the change, be it Government initiatives, mergers, changes in the political climate. 

3) You cannot suppress the anger at this stage so it’s a good idea to let them vent it in a controlled way if you can. Don’t pretend everything is fine as for most people it won’t be; they feel they are losing something. Even if their jobs are secure they may not be happy about the proposed changes, loss of friendships, colleagues, work space, etc.

4) Try this as an exercise with them:

 Allow them to brainstorm all the negative aspects of the change; they will probably have loads.

Then ask them to consider all the positives around the change. You may have to have a few ready of your own for this as they won’t find it easy. Get them to treat it as an academic exercise and set a minimum number for them to come up with. 

Then ask them to consider what is interesting about the proposed change – this may be good, bad or indifferent. This serves to help them work through their some of their anger an allows you to hear what it bothering them most, even if you can’t answer them at this point in time.

The Slough of Despond

Now it is not an absolute truth that everyone in your employ or team will hit the bottom of the curve, (or even experience it as I have described); it is likely that some of your team will reach this low ebb, at least for some of the time. You need them to continue with the day job so your first instinct may be to try and ignore what is going on. It will be counterproductive in its most literal sense. So what can you do?

1) Show empathy

This does not mean revert to meaningless clichés like ‘I know how you feel’ or worse, ‘I hear what you are saying’. Even if you are in the same situation as them they won’t believe it. And frankly, we rarely know how anyone else actually feels as we’re all unique and experience events in different ways. 

Don’t mistake empathy for sympathy and think showing it reveals a chink in the armour. Empathy is about letting them know that you appreciate how they must feel and giving some credibility to those feelings. It does not mean that you necessarily agree with their views but you are showing them the respect of acknowledging them.

If you can show appropriate empathy to staff you will find it has other benefits than just diffusing strong emotions at the time. It will increase your credibility as a manager/employer. Also, allowing people to say what they feel actually begins to decrease the strength of these feelings. Left in the dark they will fester and erupt just when it’s most damaging. That magical thinking effect again.

Another plus for you is that communication is generally strengthened when you can have open discussions about feelings and it promotes a feeling of trust.

If you can get empathy right it can really help move people on through the process of adapting to change, so give it a go.

2) Keep Communicating

There is a time in every change process when it feels like it has ground to a halt. The initial spurt of activity has waned and there is much behind the scenes work going on. Because there doesn’t seem too much to say there is a temptation to stop saying anything. 

Do not give in to this temptation. If you have been sending regular bulletins keep sending them, even if they are virtually unchanged. Change the date and the heading so they know it’s new copy, and simply tell them straight, there’s not much new to report because ‘whatever’ is still happening.

3) Listen

When people are low sometimes they simply need an opportunity to be listened to. Being listened to properly can be profoundly therapeutic and move people on, just as with showing empathy. Clearly you can’t spend all your time listening so consider maybe bringing in an outside person, possibly a counsellor or someone from HR.

4) Check the Message

Are you giving out the correct message yourself? People will watch you to see how you are coping. When I’m on a plane and it gets a bit turbulent I always look at the cabin crew. If they are still smiling I’m OK but when they start looking agitated and strapping themselves in I decide it’s time to worry!

Think of yourself as cabin crew. Employees are looking at what signals you are giving off. If you are still (metaphorically of course) serving coffee with a smile on your face as the plane bumps around, they will be reassured. But if you look like a crash landing is imminent you’ll find them in the impact position howling like banshees. It pays to try and walk the talk. 

Keeping Motivation Levels Up During Change

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

It’s not easy keeping employees motivated and focussed on the job during times of change but someone’s got to do it – and it’s you.

First, have a think about what motivates your staff in usual times. It might surprise you to know that money, while definitely a motivator, is not the main one. 

A Gallop survey of employees came up with the following top 5:

  1. The challenges that the job presents. How interesting is it, how involved can people get?
  •  The knowledge that they are actually doing something worthwhile, a job that is appreciated and useful to someone.
  • Being able to learn something new, add to their skills and knowledge.
  • Personal development, growing and developing within their role. 
  •  Autonomy, the ability to determine how they work and have some control over their working lives.

Salary or money is in the list but at number 12. Which is good news as you probably can’t give them any more money. But with a bit of ingenuity you can possibly deliver a few of the above.

More Practical Steps in Change

1) Take a look at their current roles. If you can give a little more responsibility you might hit 1 and 5 in one go.

2) Reassure them that although practise or processes are changing the work they do is still important. Thank them often for what they do. It’s good management always to praise more the behaviour that you want to see more of rather than be critical of what you don’t.

3) Praise and praise. People always remember criticism and you need to give them about 7 times more praise to counter any negative comments. As with everything you must be sincere. Fake sincerity will be spotted at a thousand paces and make it worse. So if you’re no good at this, be honest about it . Try and delegate but make sure someone with a bit of clout is actually doing it.

4) Don’t forget about training and development. There will be a point at which this won’t be met with enthusiasm but if the change process is going on a long time make sure people have opportunities to acquire new skills and feed their desire for personal development. 

If you have a training department keep in contact and see what they can provide, or contact your usual training provider to see what they might offer. Even short hour long sessions can be useful if the topics appeal. It will also contribute to make staff feel valued, that they haven’t been forgotten. 

5) Consider using your pro change people as mentors for other staff in your team. Or, ask other managers about members of their team who might be prepared to offer mentoring. It can be really helpful across departments as, again, people tend to assume that they are the worst affected. 

6) Create opportunities to involve your team in the change if you can.

7) Make a space at the beginning of each team meeting if possible to hear from every individual member of your team. You can turn this into a game if you like, along lines of ‘what rumours are currently doing the rounds about the change?’ You want to hear the truth so try not to be judgemental as you will be amazed at what you hear. It is amazing how the most insignificant of facts can get built up into a great big drama if they are not nipped in the bud early enough.

And you might even learn something. Undertake to check out what they are telling you if you can’t deal with it authoritatively straight away. If you don’t know, say so. It will keep communication open and honest and stop things festering away in the dark.

Celebrate and Commiserate

Photo by REVOLT on Unsplash

Celebrating success and progress is really important during times of change and helps keep everyone positive and motivated. As you and your team move through the stages of change, recognise that you are all moving on. Don’t expect it all to be perfect but notice and acknowledge when people are making the effort, even if it’s not as quickly as you’d like.


Try and show results in a specific way. For example, if customer/service feedback has improved, make sure everyone knows. Or, if the half the savings required have been met, tell them and acknowledge the pain it has caused them. You probably can’t give people a financial bonus but there will be things within your gift, like a team lunch, cancelling one of the less popular meetings once in a while, letting senior management know and publicising their response. 

Incidentally, senior management usually really appreciate being kept informed of successes as they tend only hear the moans and groans.


Depending on the culture which operates within your workplace it can be hugely beneficial to have a semi formal saying goodbye to that which is being lost. Ritual and symbolism are very important at a very deep level within human beings – it’s why we have made ceremonies out of marriages and funerals. It can help a lot of people to be able to look back and put a marker on the time when things changed for them so give some consideration to how you might do that within your group. You might not call it a wake but it’ll be serving the same function.

And Finally

Take a break. You’ve earned it.

The Advert

Obviously the Changing People website exists to promote the work I do so I’d be remiss if I didn’t actually add something about what we do. I used to run lots of workshops on change for staff (and still can, just ask me), but over the years I have written my own courses for dealing with personal change (change is almost always personal, isn’t it?) and specialising in working with primarily with women. Those courses are RenewYou and Speak Up and I run both in house, or train in house trainers to deliver them.

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