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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Growing Pains

People fear change, so when change is coming be prepared to handle staff fears of the future.

By  Julia Kramer

My son and his pals are maturing into their teens, and their bodies are growing so fast that their brains can’t keep up. Bigger feet and hands and longer arms and legs keep them off balance and clumsy, literally tripping over their own feet. Muscles ache and keep them up at night. Emotions run amok due to hormones and immature responses to stimuli. Any of them can be, in rapid succession, happy, angry, hurt, hopeful, embarrassed, anxious and enthusiastic.

Helping the teen survive this stage of rapid physical and psychological growth takes an extraordinary amount of parental love, patience, understanding and guidance. Parents must be mature and manage their own conflicting emotions and, against what seems like their own better judgment, encourage their teen to have new experiences and more autonomy. Take it from me, it can be scary.

Any change can be scary, and change with associated growing pains is not the exclusive province of the maturing adolescent and his overwhelmed parents. Growing organizations face the same lack of balance when employees and managers alike trip themselves up adjusting to change. Most firms experience an upsurge in employee emotionality and reactivity. Just as a parent must develop and implement new skills to handle new situations, so too must a manager adjust skills to meet changing staff needs.

Surviving organizational growth and managing associated challenges will go much more smoothly with a little foresight.

Talk about upcoming change before it happens, whether the change is a significant increase or a decrease in headcount, new policies or procedures, changes to the workspace or a new market focus. Pre-teens learn in health class and/or from their parents about the changes in store, what they should expect and useful hints on how to cope. They are made aware that everyone goes through these changes on the road to maturity. Having this information in advance radically helps to alleviate fear and confusion. So too should employees be well informed in advance of any significant change, be given encouragement and information to help them through the change, and be brought together to support each other. This one step, that of openly communicating and preparing your staff for change, can make the difference between a staff that pulls together and a staff that falls apart.

Anticipate the inevitable bumps in the road and develop strategies to maneuver around them. Let’s face it, even the best parents hear the words “You’re ruining my life!” or something similar. Smart parents know that this is common, if not normal, and that usually teenagers snap out of it as soon as they get hungry or need the car. When things change at the office, I’m doubtful that your employees will use these same words, but I’m certain that most will experience an emotional response such as anxiety, confusion, skepticism and/or apathy. To help them snap out of it, managers need to expect and plan for these reactions, develop strategies to manage them, and even discuss the emotions with the staff early in the process. Start by saying something like, “We’ve just gone over a lot of information and you may have some apprehension. We’re aware that change, even positive change, can cause anxiety and may be frightening. Please know that my door and the doors of all the managers are open. We hope you will stop by to discuss any concerns you may have.”

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a unified management team to grow an organization. Many a weary parent has wanted to throw his hands in the air and give up but, instead and more effectively, seeks respite, encouragement and advice from his spouse or other parents. When managing change at your firm seems unrelenting or ineffective and the growing pains just keep on growing, managers may want to throw in the towel. Create a safe place for them to share information, express concerns and collectively solve problems. I strongly suggest creating a team approach to managing staff through change. If your mid-level managers are not an established team, create one. If change management is not on your senior staff agenda, add it. It’s impractical in a two-parent household for one parent to raise the average teen alone. Similarly, your managers should not be expected to handle change-related issues in isolation.

An organization moving through significant change without experiencing some growing pain is as rare as a child sailing through puberty without a hitch. Prepare your staff for upcoming change. Plan for the inevitable bumps in the road. Stay connected by keeping the lines of communication open and creating support systems. Eventually, things will settle down, order will reemerge and you may find yourself thinking, much like a nostalgic parent, “It seems like yesterday we were so small…”

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer.

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