How to Coach Your Teams Through Change

Updated: Nov 13, 2019


How many job interviews or employee meetings have you sat in this year, listening to stories describing how well they'll respond to an impending change? Perhaps they even advertise change management skills on their resume. I know I have.


I think we're all great at change - so long as we can predict it, plan for it and eliminate any of the ambiguity of it. We're great at change when we can control the pace of it and soothe our discomfort when it starts to get a little bit too painful. Unfortunately, I think you and I both know that perfectly planned, predicted and crystal clear is not the way change typically happens at work or in life.


Upset and frustrated, we often feel stuck - stalling as we hope for more clarity. Counterintuitively, one of the challenges leaders face leading their teams through change isn’t a lack of creativity. There’s actually plenty of it. However, we often use our creativity to imagine all the ways we are stuck instead of creating a new solutions.


I spent much of my career leading organizations through major change initiatives, which helped me become overconfident in my personal ability to handle change. Until a big one happened to me. I was working for a technology company, loving my job as the Director of HR. Six months after I was hired, our company was purchased. For the first time in my life I struggled with it because I didn't plan for it. I couldn't predict it. I definitely couldn't control it and there was a lot of ambiguity. The only certainty I knew was that my role as it existed today would no longer exist in a future version of the company organizational chart.


Even though I was chosen to lead the company merger and change management efforts, I felt like a fraud as I struggled with the changes myself. It was easy to paint myself as a helpless victim of a big company takeover. It was tempting to commiserate with my colleagues and demand that changes to my role be the exception rather than the rule. It was convenient to blame the acquiring company as the person doing all of this to me.


The Roles We Play

I was caught in was something that psychologist Stephen Karpman calls the Drama Triangle. When faced with conflict, we can play one of three roles: a victim, rescuer, or persecutor. I saw myself as a big, fat victim in this change. All I could see were the reasons why this thing was not working for me. I had a long list of “shoulds” – things the acquiring company (persecutor) should be doing to make my life easier, but weren’t. I found plenty of rescuers, people that I hoped would soothe my bruised ego to reinforce why I was right and they were wrong. Victims and rescuers love to band together, feed off of each other and commiserate. They can tend to gang up against the persecutor. Well, guess what? Then the persecutor feels persecuted and they find their own rescuer because they've turned into a victim. And this whole triangle just keeps going.


Like me, you may have found yourself as a victim of change or are leading a team of people on my team who are victims of a change. They're just stuck. They stall and complain and hope for more clarity to come along. All the while they drain precious resources and deliver little value. What leaders really need are creatives and innovators. Resilient problem-solvers that can move initiatives forward.


It's who I needed to be. It’s who I need my teams to be.


Coaching Teams to Creative Solutions

Counterintuitively, I was very creative. The problem was that I was using all my imagination and creativity to build myself world of why I was stuck instead of building my vision for the future. How do I shift people out of this victim mindset and into one of creativity?

I had to coach myself out of this mindset first. One of the reasons why change is so hard for us is because it prompts an identity shift. You see, my ego had confused my “who” with my “do.” I was wrapped up in my current title and company role. If I could no longer do these things and be these things, my ego would question my whole identity. Who was I without my title? A frustration I hear often from leaders who are amidst a big shift is, “I have no idea how I add value.”


Simple Questions That Shift Mindsets

Whether you're in the change yourself or you're coaching people through change, we want to move people from a victim to what The Empowerment Dynamic calls a creator. A simple way to make the mindset shift is to move them out of ego by asking questions or giving writing assignments for reflection. Three of my favorite coaching questions (for self and team) include:

  1. How could this actually be happening for my greater good?

  2. If I can't change it, how can I make the most of it?How could this actually be serving my talents?

  3. What’s my plan to contribute my skills in three ways that can positively impact an outcome?

As a leader, one of the quickest ways to reinforce a victim mindset is to play the rescuer. While well-intentioned, we want to take the pain away from difficult circumstances, so we make exceptions to new rules or agree with their complaints about the changes. Instead of rushing to ease someone's discomfort, shift into the mode of coach by stepping back and holding space for them to be uncomfortable. Being a great coach means asking great questions with love and care, but making sure that we're holding space so people grow by gaining comfort being uncomfortable.


A final mindset shift to promote creativity over complaining is to change how we view the persecutor – from someone who is doing something to us to providing an opportunity for us. Some great reflection questions include:

  1. How could they/this be challenging me to learn new skills?

  2. How could they/this be calling me to do something different?

  3. Given this is their approach, what part can I contribute to the outcome?

Reframing my mindset eventually led to a role that was more challenging and exciting than my original Director of HR position I held when I first came onboard. I could have easily remained stuck, blaming my circumstances for why my career was over. Instead, I chose to focus on how this was contributing to the greater good of my overall career.


As a leader, reframing mindsets by asking reflective questions and giving your teams writing assignments helps them move out of stalling and complaining and into using that excess creativity in ways that give them empowerment and ownership over new solutions and results.


Sometimes the best way to be great at change is just to stop defying it and start digging into it with curiosity, even if that’s just one meeting or one day at a time. Using a gratitude practice to focus on what's working and finding light in the dark places is a great way to build creative solutions when we’re tempted to stay stuck. Happiness researchers agree that when we use gratitude and we focus on what's working, it makes us more creative, happier and perform better. Even in changing times.


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© 2020 by Kelli Thompson