Strategies to help employees navigate change

 In Change Management, Employee Retention, Human Resources, Leadership

Healthcare leaders are no strangers to change. But, this year, I’m sure you feel as though you’ve earned a Ph.D. in change. Pandemic aside, change is an ever-present force in our industry. Whether it’s thrust upon you like COVID-19 or you’re stepping into change to strengthen your organization, like a new brand or EMR deployment, change can be among the most difficult areas to lead through. And, how you lead through the change can determine your success as a leader for years to come. It can make or break the change you’re trying to realize. And, it can either catalyze your culture or denigrate it.

During my career, I’ve worked in different healthcare settings – a seven-hospital system and a healthcare real estate investment trust. I’ve also had the opportunity to serve on the board for a nonprofit behavioral health provider. Regardless of the setting, I’ve navigated a range of changes, including closing a hospital in one part of the city and opening a hospital in a suburban area; union organizing and contract negotiations; organizational restructuring; centralizing services; rolling out new organizational strategies; adding service lines and more. Through all of the changes, I witnessed true leadership in action as well as missed opportunities to successfully guide employees through times of uncertainty. I’ve seen the cost of a change redo and I’ve felt the hit to culture. I’ve also seen people rise to unimagined heights of performance, overcome old animosities to become change agents and build teams of unparalleled strength. Change is like a forge – it either strengthens a team or weakens it.

Based on my experience, there are key success elements to guide employees during times of change.

LEADING EMPLOYEES THROUGH CHANGE

Incorporating the following elements into your overall change management plan will demonstrate your support and commitment to employees and provide a clear path forward. I’ll weave in lessons learned from leaders who made people the focus and from those who missed the mark.

Begin with the “why”

To introduce any type of change to your employees, you have to begin with the why. Why are we making this change? Why now? The why, which is an extension of your team’s mission and purpose, is a grounding element for your employees. It defines why you do what you do. It brings the team back to a shared sense of purpose. Bridge that why to the employees’ WIIFM – What’s in It for Me. This helps team members understand the personal benefit of change.

Let’s say your purpose is to inspire people to deliver the best care to people living with a serious illness. And the change is transitioning to a new EMR. As you begin to communicate your plan to transition to a new EMR, connect it back to your why. How will it help your employees deliver the best care to your patients? The connection to your why will serve as a motivator, helping people to embrace the change.

One hospital CEO I worked with excelled at connecting change to the why. He was charismatic to begin with. Anytime he was speaking with employees, he’d weave in stories or relatable examples to support his point. Employees were behind him, supporting the change. I recall one employee saying, “I swear … he could sell sand to someone in the desert!”

Empathy and grit are musts

While some people thrive in shades of gray, others feel some level of anxiety when the road ahead isn’t clear. People feel first and think second. Acknowledge how people may be feeling – scared, anxious, overwhelmed or sad. And, don’t hide your feelings. You may be the leader of an organization, but you’re also a person. Help employees see you on a more personal level. Share anecdotes or a story that relates to the challenges you’re dealing with as an organization and as a leader.

Author and leadership speaker Margie Warrell said, “Leading from the head alone is insufficient. In the midst of such intense uncertainty, leaders need to be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of those in their ranks. Leaders who can not only speak to unspoken concerns and deepest fears, but who can rein them in, fuel optimism and rally their best thinking.”

Being an empathetic leader isn’t easy. It takes a lot to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to see the issue from their perspective. And, it can be hard to be persistent with empathy when change is constant or extended. As you work through the change process, residual challenges almost always crop up and emotions and frustrations can rise. Without a healthy dose of grit, it can be tempting to give up and put up an emotional wall.

Another CEO I worked with was the epitome of a genuine, empathetic and determined leader. He led at a difficult time when once competing hospitals were brought together to form a health system. It wasn’t easy for him to be confronted by so much frustration in his organization. But, he didn’t “hide” in his office. Rather, he got close to the problems and frustrations. He would frequently have lunch with employees in the cafeteria or stop in a nursing unit to hear what was on employees’ minds. Change was still difficult, but this CEO’s empathetic leadership style and determination to keep moving forward made a significant impact on how employees adapted to it.

Keep communicating openly and honestly

Communicating during times of change can be similar to communicating during times of crisis. Whether the change is big or small or constant, communicating with clarity, frequency, consistency and endurance are key.

One example of stellar leadership comes from AuthoraCare Collective in North Carolina. Two hospices that had served their adjacent communities for decades merged in 2019 … and a new brand was necessary to represent their combined strength. “AuthoraCare” symbolizes that patients can author their own stories – even during a serious illness – and they have authority over the care they choose to receive. The brand’s theme line is “Your story. Our expert care.” Kristen Yntema, President and CEO of AuthoraCare Collective, communicated consistently and passionately that “Your story” also applied to each of their team members. She encouraged everyone to author how their stories could contribute every day to helping patients live more fully as they wished. When the inevitable bumps occurred along the process of merging, Kristen pointed everyone back to the entire agency’s purpose of helping patients author their own stories – putting patients and families first – then finding ways as a team to best support them.

The responsibility of communicating throughout the change doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the CEO. As the change progresses, you may find employees who are extremely supportive of the change. Consider how they can help champion the change and inspire others.

You may also find pockets of confusion or resistance that mid-level leaders and change champions can help identify and address. Be clear about expectations, including how disagreements are to be handled and how the team should move forward once resolved. Consider a policy in your change plan that encourages the voicing of dissent by mandates that once an agreement is made and concerns worked through that everyone will publicly support the decision. If you aren’t clear about your expectations for handling conflict and dissent, they may come back to haunt you.

Communicating openly, honestly and frequently is important. Without clear, consistent communication, the gaps can be filled by misinformation.

Make space to reflect and grow

Show me a mindful leader who has been through significant change and I’ll show you a leader who has learned and grown. If you make space throughout the change journey to reflect – as a leader, as a team and as an organization – you’ll find critical lessons that will make you stronger. Start by approaching the planned change with intentionality. Ask: what do we want to get out of this experience that will make us stronger and better? Take time in leadership meetings to revisit this intention, talk about key learnings and their applications. Document it and fold those concepts into your future plans.

Each change creates an opportunity for an organization, teams and leaders to level up. Step into the opportunity to grow as a communicator, a determined change agent and a mindful and reflective leader. When the leader and the team grow in these attributes, the organization becomes stronger and better capable of adapting to future change. And, we all know that there’s more of that just around the bend.

My colleague Stan Massey, partner and lead consultant for Transcend, and I will be joined by Kristen Yntema, president and CEO of AuthoraCare Collective, as we present a webinar about change management for the National Association for Home Care & Hospice on August 26, 2020. Kristen will share keys to success following the merger of two hospice organizations. There’s still time to register for the webinar.

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