How to Lead in Times of Change

As a kid, I vividly remember getting my first cavity. I had never heard of such a thing, but the dentist explained that I had a hole in my tooth’s enamel that needed a filling. If that news wasn’t bad enough, he went on to ask, “Do you think you and your mother can stay a bit longer today, so I can fill it now?”

Not only did I need more work on my teeth, but he wanted to do it right away.

When my mom replied that we couldn’t do it that day, since she had errands to run, the dentist then requested we return as soon as possible to get that cavity filled. “Good grief!” I remember thinking. “What’s the big deal with this cavity? Why is it so important and urgent?”

Was this guy sadistic?

I soon discovered the answer to my question. All dentists know if they don’t fill cavities quickly, bacteria will fill the tooth. In fact, all kinds of wrong stuff enters into the crevice and can cause more problems. In fact, it can be the source of lots of pain.

Dentists don’t want the situation to get worse.

Leaders Are Dentists

The fact is—this image is a vivid picture of good leadership in times of change. When change is taking place, people collect empty spaces in their minds about what’s going on. Call them “mental cavities.” Since things are different, they don’t yet know all the details; a vacuum exists where accurate information and experience once resided. They move from knowing exactly what’s happening to feeling like they know very little about what’s happening. People have holes in their minds or “empty chapters” in their “narrative.”

This is why leaders must over-communicate in times of transition or stress.

Just like a cavity in a tooth, if it isn’t filled with accurate information and truthful narratives, people can become afraid, and wrong narratives can take over. People conjecture; they can get suspicious about the worst-case scenario when they get scared. It’s the fear of the unknown. Have you ever seen what happens during times of change?

  • Rumors pop up.
  • Speculation occurs.
  • Gossip happens.
  • Backbiting can even take place.

Why is this? Because people are human before they are professionals. People can be insecure; they can get scared. They can feel threatened and they can attack in such times. I have noticed:

  1. The larger the cavity — the greater the possibility of inaccurate narratives inside people.
  2. The larger the cavity — the more leaders must over-communicate with their team.

What makes this issue doubly difficult for leaders is that we live in a world saturated with information. Thanks to portable devices and social media — people are receiving as many as 10,000 messages a day. That’s a lot of information. Because humans naturally seek out what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (meaning we look for others to confirm what we already assume to be true), many people may not be storing a truthful narrative inside them. Social media messaging creates an echo chamber where we naturally consume information from others with the same political, social and ideological bias that’s lingering in our minds already.

This simply means we must furnish accurate information for their mental cavities.

Some Practical Tips for Leaders

When communicating with your team during changing times, keep these tips in mind:

  1. People do not need to know everything you know; they need only what is relevant.
  2. People need clarity from you, more than certainty. Tell them when you don’t know.
  3. Transparency earns trust; be truthful about the ups and downs of your changes.
  4. Always communicate with a spirit of belief and optimism about the future.
  5. Always offer them next steps: what can they act on in response to the information.

This idea of “dentists and cavities” is actually a brand, new Habitudes® image. We teach leadership with images and now have a new event to offer you on your campus or in your organization on leading change. It is all about enabling your leadership team to help others navigate the changes going on and to make it to the other side better. This principle is one of nine that we provide on change. Click here to discuss bringing this event to your location.

How to Lead in Times of Change