Future of Work - It's All About Mindset

This year and the next few years are going to require an immense number of changes. The pandemic accelerated the need for many new skills that won’t go away – such as the ability to manage remote or hybrid teams, new digital skills to do jobs remotely, and successfully managing e-commerce environments.

But the change won’t stop there as we look at the future of work. Food service and customer service jobs may decline, while warehouse and transportation jobs are expected to increase. Health care and STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) roles will potentially grow faster than before.

New roles and new technology are changing the skills that workers will need in the future – innovating and creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, strong interpersonal and social intelligence, data and analytical capabilities.

Yet, before you can develop any new skillsets, you first need to build change mindsets. Because if your people don’t have the right mindset to understand what’s changing and why they need to change, all of your initiatives will never get off the ground.

The amount of change employees can absorb without fatigue – negative reactions to change such as burnout, frustration, or apathy – has plummeted at a time when more change is precisely what organizations need in order to reset.”

– Jessica Knight, Vice President, Gartner HR practice.

Challenging Change Fatigue

Gartner has said that people’s ability to absorb change is half what it was in 2019. Why is that? Because people had to navigate an extraordinary amount of change in an incredibly short period of time. But it wasn’t just one change; it was a myriad of changes.

So, employees aren’t dealing with each change in isolation. They’re often dealing with a number of different changes, each run by different project teams, working on their own timing and communication plans.

This means that employees are bombarded with messages often, like a Russian doll of change. You’re dealing with a change within a bigger change, within an even bigger change, yet somehow no one has connected the dots. That’s more change than most people can successfully process.

We talk a lot about re-skilling. We talked a lot about the skills shortage, and we see a lot of press about organizations investing hundreds of millions of dollars in building new skills. And that’s all really valid and really important.

But if you don’t get the mindset first, it’s extremely difficult – maybe even impossible – for people to absorb and apply new skills effectively and at the pace of change that’s needed right now. It’s up to leaders to change the conversations they’re having with their people, the information they’re sharing, and the stories they’re telling.

 

Creating Change Mindsets: Six Approaches for Leaders

Marathon runners know that while physical preparedness is critical, so is having the right mindset. If your brain isn’t telling you that you can run the distance, odds are that you won’t. The same concept applies to the workplace. Leaders must reconsider how they’re supporting people throughout a change journey, how they’re cheering them on, how they’re appealing to their emotional state, and how they’re making it enjoyable.

Context is King

Context is critical for engagement and buy-in. It provides meaning and clarity to the intended message and delivers a deeper understanding of the intent and direction of the new initiative or change, which helps build trust between an organization and its employees. Yet many organizations tend to focus more heavily on content rather than context. Why are so many missing the mark when it comes to context?

For starters, change is emotional, not intellectual. Often, our emotions override our decision making, so even if we intend to change our behaviors, our emotions get the best of us and prevent us from making the decisions that lead to change.

Additionally, employees rarely understand the context of change as well as leaders think they do. Leaders are often under the (wrong) impression that their people already get the content, and moving into the execution phase trumps all else. However, unveiling the change during a virtual town hall doesn’t mean they actually get the rationale behind it.

The solution: Leaders must focus on helping people make emotional connections to the change first. Like a great movie, it’s up to leaders to paint a picture of the drama, excitement, or adventure this will create for the business. This means telling them a compelling story as to why the change matters, how it will impact each person, how it will impact the organization as a whole, how obstacles will be tackled and successes celebrated.

Leaders must also remember that unlike the leadership team, most employees haven’t been immersed in the change for months and therefore need to understand the big picture and their role in it. They also need the time to digest this information, to ask questions, and to synthesize everything for themselves.

Connecting the Dots is Critical

Employees are dealing with multiple changes concurrently that are often wide ranging. And in all likelihood, no one or very few people even have the visibility to ensure these changes align and figure out how they should work together to support the greater good of the organization. And they’re certainly not thinking about the tangled mess this is presenting to employees at the receiving end.

This leaves people feeling confused and overwhelmed. And when people view something as overly complex, they tend to give up trying to understand. This is a massive roadblock to change.

The solution: Navigate the Russian doll effect by providing employees with a box top view. It’s much easier to put together a jigsaw puzzle with the box top image to help you understand where the piece in your hand fits.

The same goes at work. If people have an actual visual that connects all the dots, it will be much easier to understand why the changes are being put in place. This in turn directly impacts folks’ willingness and ability to adopt these changes.

 

Lead with Realism and Transparency

Often, organizations believe they need to “sell the change.” Leaders think it’s their job to stand at the front of the room and tell people, “This new initiative is the best thing since sliced bread!” before disappearing in a puff of smoke. By doing this, leaders set unrealistic expectations about how wonderful things will be and leave out all the parts that might not be so appealing.

Of course, this does an excellent job of getting people excited for the time being, but when reality sets in, people become disillusioned and start resisting change.

The solution: Leaders must help their people acknowledge the reality of their current difficulties but mix that with a positive belief that in the end, they will triumph. This requires them to have a very solid understanding of the current state – they need to know what’s happening on the front lines, know how their people are feeling, what’s working, what’s not, etc. – and the key shifts required of their people in order to reach their goal.

If leaders can set realistic and reasonable expectations, employees are more likely to stay committed to the change journey – despite the bumps encountered along the way. It’s the delicate balance of being grounded in the realities of the change, while feeling inspired by the vision for the future.

Manage the Ripples of Change

Which do you think is more distressing to an employee – a “big bang” organizational transformation or something a bit smaller in scale, such as a new manager or a new digital tool rollout? You might assume the big bang change most negatively affects mindsets. However, the smaller day-to-day changes are far more damaging! It’s the “ripples of change” that can take the greatest toll on employees.

The solution: Leaders need to reallocate efforts so that there is more support during the people part of the change and less during the lead-up. Yes, creating excitement and telling a compelling story when the new initiative is introduced is key to getting people to develop the right mindset for change.

But people need more support once the launch or the change is underway because it’s typically at that point that unanticipated questions and obstacles start to crop up – the exact time they’re being asked to implement behavior and routine change.

Lead through Ambiguity

Leaders can’t possibly have answers to all of the questions that will arise during a transformation. So, it’s not helpful to set the tone that it’s all going to go just like clockwork. Leaders need to be thinking less about the answers and more about embracing and demonstrating a change mindset and get really comfortable with leading through ambiguity. The way your leaders show up matters.

The solution: When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, there’s a “goo” phase while it’s in the cocoon. And just like your average, ordinary change process, the middle is also kind of gooey. As leaders, you must talk about what that can look like and how it can feel.

Most importantly, be empathetic and understanding while people are in the icky “goo” phase. Your job is building a change-resilient workforce. That means a lot of listening and coaching and giving your people the time and attention that allows them to go through the metamorphosis.

Celebrate Wins and the Small Failures

A great way to keep people motivated during a transformation is to tell them it’s working. People want to know where they are in the journey and want to know what is going right (and what needs tweaking). This communication is super motivating and is best as a two-way street.

Ask people what they feel is working. Ask how they want to celebrate the small failures that allowed them to learn something and move forward more prepared and informed than they were before.

The solution: Scale stories of early adopters and advocates. Ask these folks to share what they experienced and use creative tools like video so others can see their faces and make it more real. And then celebrate the incremental wins that will eventually accumulate into the transformed future state.

Keep people motivated to stay the course because when they feel energized, when they feel they’re accomplishing something, they’ll continue to follow through with the change until it becomes the norm.

 

Embedding a Change Mindset Into Your Organization

Everyone knows that the majority of change initiatives fail. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Most failures don’t happen at launch; they happen during the good and messy phase in the middle.

When leaders fade into the background, the buzz wanes and excitement dwindles.  Small obstacles start to feel insurmountable, and then out of left field, another change initiative is introduced. Suddenly, employees are being bombarded by several concurrent changes, each with its own messages, timeline, and goals.

Change initiatives don’t fail because there wasn’t a solid kickoff. They fail because no one is connecting the dots of change. They fail because the change isn’t embedded in the organization. And they fail most of all because the organization hasn’t built a change resilient workforce and people are missing the change mindset.

This pattern doesn’t have to continue. It is very possible to launch and sustain change. And it begins when leaders establish a change mindset and help their people adopt one too.

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