I’ve got to restructure my group, it’s a mandate from the top.  Three are going to have to leave.  I know how I’m going to make the decision as to who stays and who goes, but I don’t know what to do about the emotional impact on the group as a whole.  How do I manage the emotional impact of change?

It’s a question that came up in a group coaching session this week.  An organization I’m working with currently is undergoing a profound amount of change.  The tone on that call was somber.  She wasn’t the only one facing this challenge.

And the answer to the question?  The answer is there is no easy answer.  And that’s tough, because most of us who are in leadership positions got there because we’re good at solving problems.  We’re type A people who know how to get sh#t done.  Our tendency to be able to jump in and fix things is what has gotten us to the point we’re at, it’s our success formula so to speak. 

Utilize Compassionate Empathy for Managing the Emotional Impact of Change

Managing the emotional impact of a reorganization or a significant change isn’t something that can just be easily ticked off a to do list.  And this causes significant stress for a lot of leaders because in essence we feel helpless.  In our ignorance of how to deal with the situation, we often end up ignoring the problem.  Which makes things even worse.  The bottom line is you don’t “fix” emotions.  You hold the space for them gently.  You acknowledge them, don’t try to rush people through them and don’t try to change them or make them go away.  You let them be. 

Leading with compassionate empathy can be tricky.  It’s not the same as pity or sympathy, where we feel sorry FOR the other person.  It’s about allowing yourself to feel WITH them without taking the responsibility for solving their problem on your shoulders.  In practice it looks quite simple but it can be quite difficult to do.  

3 Steps for Navigating Change with Compassionate Empathy

1) Create a safe space.  Maybe this is a 1:1 rather than a team meeting.  You might ask, “How are you feeling about the change?  How is the impending reorganization personally affecting you?”  Ask a few open-ended questions and then wait.

2) Embrace any awkward silence that may arise.  This can be excruciating if we’re not used to it and you might be tempted to fill the silence.  Don’t.  Trust me, they’ll eventually speak.  And then deeply listen.  Listen for the tone in their voice, listen for the specific words they’re using.  Are they sad?  Anxious?  Angry?  Resentful?  Listen for the emotions present in what they are saying, even if they don’t name a feeling.

3) Acknowledge and validate what you’re hearing.  It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their interpretation or how they’re processing the information.  “It makes perfect sense that you’re frustrated.  This is the fourth reorganization in 4 years.  Anyone in your shoes would feel the same.”  And to be clear this isn’t a one time thing.  In order to be effective listeners, we often have to acknowledge and validate many times during the conversation.  The more we do it, the more heard the person on the receiving end feels.  The more negative energy starts to dissipate.  “How can I support you in this moment?  Or “How can I best support you during this time?” can be helpful questions to ask once you’ve leaned in and lent your ear, rather than just jumping in with advice or making assumptions about what you think they might need.

As mentioned previously what I’ve just described above can be challenging.  It’s vulnerable on both sides.  It’s vulnerable to open the space for emotion as it can feel like you’re opening pandora’s box, it’s vulnerable for the people on the receiving end as they express what they need to express, it’s hard to sit with their pain and it’s hard to witness.  The desperate urge to try to jump in and fix normally sets in. 

I’ve often said that the greatest gift you can ever give another human being is the gift of our presence.  In that moment they don’t need platitudes.  They don’t need advice.  They don’t need assurances that everything happens for a reason, even though it’s probably true in the long run.  What they need is to be seen and heard in that very moment.  They need to be witnessed.  Holding the space for others is a skill and it can be practiced just like every other leadership skill.  It’s a powerful opportunity to create connection with the people you lead. 

Coaching Questions for Thought:

  • How would you rate yourself on steps 1-3 above for cultivating compassionate empathy?
  • Where are your learning edges and what do you need to focus on to be more effective?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!