Over a hundred years ago, the Marlin Company began its legacy of distributing posters to executive leaders to assist them in communicating in powerful and effective ways about workplace issues within their organizations. However, as the marketplace began transforming into a technology-based culture, the company foresaw a threat arising to its position in the print industry. It was forced to make a decision that would either catapult it into an uncharted future or extinguish its name forever.
Frank Kenna III, CEO of the Marlin Company, recalls the difficulty of the situation: “There was considerable pressure from managers and board members, especially in the beginning, to not let our new unproven products harm our bread-and-butter ones. But we had to…It was clear to me that if we didn’t do it ourselves, someone else would.”[i] Despite initial skepticism and criticism, Kenna led the organization into a new era in which a print publisher became a software developer, providing solutions for workplace communication based on software-as-a-service to over 8,000 customers.[ii] While most of their competitors went out of business during this period of change, the Marlin Company experienced rapid growth, specifically in their digital products. The company proved that if an organization is willing to adapt to the prevailing marketplace and implement a flexible approach within its overall mission, it can come out on top despite the curveballs thrown its way.
What kind of emotion starts to surface when you hear the word change? For some of us, the very word brings an immediate feeling of dread that makes us want to run in the opposite direction, but for others, it brings enthusiasm and the prospect of adventure. The extent to which we remain flexible depends heavily on our ability to adapt and manage change. As a leader trying to implement change, you no doubt have encountered a wide array of reactions to shifts in your organization or team. There will be some who flourish during transitions, while others struggle just to keep their heads above water.
Understanding why people are afraid or reluctant to change is a helpful starting point for any leader who wants to effectively influence his or her team and organization in adopting change. Emotions such as fear, mistrust, or loss of security may serve as underlying factors in resistance to change. When unexpected change takes place without adequate warning, many people will naturally push back, either from fear of the unknown or from the unsettling feeling that arises when things seemingly come out of nowhere. If the foundation of trust is weak within your team, individuals may struggle to commit to the shift in vision. They may ask, “How do I know I can trust them if they haven’t proven their trustworthiness to me in the past?” Moreover, if the change leads to a perceived loss of control or a feeling of insecurity in their roles, individuals may believe that decisions impacting their future are being made without their input, making it all the harder for them to come on board wholeheartedly.
Sometimes the resistance to change revolves around timing. When employees experience a lot of change within a short period of time, they may feel overwhelmed, especially if the change puts more work on their plates without a corresponding sense of empathy from the leadership. It is also important to remember that
some people simply don’t like change constitutionally. In this case, resistance has less to do with the actual change taking place than with the disruption of routine and familiarity.
From the moment we are born, our minds build mental scripts based on our experiences and the lessons we learn as a result. These reactions become second nature, like catching a ball that is thrown to you or ducking when you are about to hit your head on something overhead. These scripts simplify our world by allowing us to react without having to process a situation. Within the realm of change in the workplace, these mental scripts contribute to an adherence to the status quo. Individuals assume that a current process will continue to be successful because it has been in the past, without taking into consideration the external factors that can affect our potential for success in the future. In essence, clinging to our mental scripts is the opposite of flexibility and can blind us to opportunities for beneficial adaptation.
Given these potential causes of a hesitation to adapt, leaders must be sensitive and aware of the reasons why individuals may struggle with change. We can’t rely on assumptions or generalizations, but must instead employ active listening skills and show empathy if we are to gain the valuable insights into their thoughts that will equip us to lead them more effectively in the present and in the future.
As we come to terms with the realities of our ever-changing world, we must translate this change into the functional dynamic of our teams. The Marlin Company’s awareness of the potential danger ahead gave them the motivation and courage to be proactive in finding a way to survive as they moved forward. In building our teams, we should learn to value those individuals who have the ability to stay flexible and who are open to new approaches to ordinary tasks. Those who possess a natural inclination to make modifications when circumstances call for them and are proponents for change will be invaluable in building cohesive working units. Ensuring that your team members maintain excellence in the midst of transition or challenge, rather than losing their mental resilience, will help to instill perseverance when you need it most.
Learn to vary your approach with team members, depending on what works best for them. There’s a reason why baseball pitchers learn multiple pitches, with different spins and direction, and football teams master numerous plays. Sometimes a situation calls for an approach different from what we’d anticipated, and we must listen to our instincts in order to make needed adjustments. What’s in your leadership playbook? Are you running the same play with every team member, expecting it to work every time? Your ability to be flexible with your team members’ communication styles, personalities, and emotions regarding change will set the tone for their willingness to adapt. By showing them that you are flexible, empathetic, confident, respectful, and supportive, you will develop a greater sense of unity and trust and make change much more manageable for everyone involved.
Just as the Marlin Company understood that a century of success would mean nothing if it failed to adapt, we too must be willing to act upon an honest assessment of the unforgiving evolution of the marketplace. If we hesitate to adapt, we will be left in the dust. But by strengthening our flexibility, we will increase our value to our organizations, our teams, and ourselves. While we can never predict what the future may hold, we can equip ourselves with the right playbook now and be ready for each and every curveball that comes our way.