More than in any other, people in the social impact sector need to deal with change. And that can be hard. While the results of a successful change can be enormously gratifying and beneficial to organizations and their causes, the process can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.
The first thing to understand is this: change is an external event. It happens to you. Transition, on the other hand, is internal. It’s how we react to a change.
There is nothing you can do about change. Nothing; it’s going to happen. But you can decide how you adapt to that change.
That’s the internal transition.
It helps to know what each step of that process looks like so that you can know what to expect and how to navigate each phase.
When faced with transition, everyone goes through four very predictable stages.
- Denial: Denying the reality of a transition, often refusing to accept or acknowledge the need for change.
- Resistance: Acknowledging the need for change, but feeling apprehensive or resistant towards taking specific action.
- Exploration: Exploring the possibilities and potential outcomes of the transition, often seeking out new opportunities and considering different options.
- Commitment: Deciding to move forward with the transition and take active steps towards implementing the change.
Transition calls for leadership.
With clients, one of the first things I do when they have to deal with change is encourage volunteer leaders to “go first.” To lead the way. You need to go through each stage yourself before asking volunteers to go through it. Each stage can take as little as a few minutes – or as long as several days. The faster the leader can get through these stages the better, of course, but don’t rush it. Make sure you’re actually through each one before going on.
And when you are through? Then the real work begins!
Now that you’ve been through it yourself, you’ll more easily recognize each stage of a change and be able to lead your people through it.
You’ll know that volunteers are in denial about the change when:
- You see: avoidance, going through the motions, still doing things the same old way, passive resistance.
- You hear: silence, everything is fine, I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t know what all the fuss is about.
To deal with it, you need to talk about the changes. Present them openly and frequently, explaining what’s happening and why the change is important. Talk about the problems with the status quo. Don’t let people forget that it’s coming.
These are the signs of resistance:
- You see: careless or sloppy work, anger, low energy, endless preparation to avoid real action, conflicts.
- You hear: complaining, “this will never work”, “it’s unfair”, “it’s stupid”, blaming, “it never should have happened”.
Your job in the resistance stage is simply to listen. It is amazing how many issues can be solved just by listening and acknowledging volunteers’ concerns! Solicit questions, acknowledge what you’re hearing, ask questions yourself to make sure you understand. Try to learn what’s going on behind what is actually being said out loud.
You’ll know volunteers are in the exploration stage when:
- You see: chaos, constant searching for more information, risk taking.
- You hear: enthusiasm, “what about this way?”, “I’ve got another idea!”
In this stage, your role is just to facilitate and encourage the enthusiasm. Stimulate new thinking, challenge people, lead brainstorming sessions, and ask for new possibilities. Let the chaos happen; it’s a necessary piece as people deal with change, and will be short-lived.
This is the fun stage! You’ll know you have commitment when:
- You see: independent decision making, cooperation, teamwork, forward thinking, long-term planning.
- You hear: collaboration, “we can do this even better”, “let’s get together on this”.
As the leader of the volunteers, you need to focus, inspire, acknowledge, and celebrate their progress!
Change is a constant in the social impact sector.
It can be challenging, but the results are worth it. Your role as leader is to help volunteers navigate the stages of transition.
From denial to commitment, each stage requires careful planning, strategic thinking, and a willingness to take bold action.
By identifying each phase as volunteers are going through it, and choosing the right approach, you can overcome obstacles, leverage opportunities and lead volunteers to embrace change.