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How leaders can talk about difficult change

Oct 23, 2022
By: Deron J. Kling

Growing up and becoming an adult was a tumultuous process for me, as it was for many of us. I held different part-time jobs with growing levels of responsibility through high school and college. Eventually I was put in charge of others, training new employees on how to do our work and managing theirs.

This role also came with the responsibility of explaining changes — changes to schedules, to vacations, to rates of pay, and to other things as well. I quickly learned the challenge of communicating a difficult change, making many mistakes along the way. I learned to be direct. I learned that taking time to listen to an objection was important, even when there was really nothing to be done about it. Most importantly I learned that genuine compassion and honesty went along way in helping people accept that things were changing.

Tackling difficult conversations about change

Today our personal and working environments are disrupted by change at unprecedented levels. Leaders in financial institutions are more aware of this than ever, and they are often called on to communicate difficult changes with increasing frequency. This can be tough to do effectively and repeatedly; it can really wear leaders out. Some of the things I learned early in my career or was taught by experienced leaders can help when it comes to talking about difficult changes.

  • First, whenever possible, be face to face with those impacted by the change. Our teams almost always prefer to receive information about upcoming changes in person. It gives the leaders a chance to not only deliver the message but also genuinely express their feelings about the change. Be genuine and sincere; your teams will know when you are not.
  • Being face to face leads to another effective approach: bi-directional communication. It’s important to provide information, then give people a chance to ask questions. You may not always have the answers, but it is usually okay to say that. Let them know you will come back with the information — and then follow through on the commitment.
  • Finally, frequent and consistent communication through a change helps manage anxiety as well as keep your teams informed. Set expectations for regular updates and then stick to it. There may be times when you have less to say than you would like, but still deliver the communication. When people believe that they will be kept informed, there is often an increased level of patience with a change. Not knowing when they’ll know can cause a great deal of anxiety.

So, to sum it all up, get in front of people to tell the story of the change, be direct, let them ask questions, and provide frequent updates. It may not change the reality of what is changing, but it will probably help those going though it with you.

Wipfli can help

Need help with change management? Wipfli can help your institution successfully communicate and adapt to change. Learn more.

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Deron J. Kling
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