Navigating Change: You Must Teach Employees to Drive a Stick

A senior leader in the aerospace industry told me “I’d really like to help my employees through this.” “This” referred to the uncertainty about NASA’s future with the new direction the President recently announced. (Sound like today? This conversation took place in 2010.)

The Leader Needed to Help Employees Be Adept at Navigating Change

As he talked about the significant transition and its implications, I realized he was adept at adjusting to radical change. He was unconsciously competent. The likelihood was high, though, that there would be great variation in the adeptness of his workforce.

This leader had developed the skills and attitude to navigate transitions. To use an analogy borrowed from the auto industry, after being a competent driver of a car with automatic transmission, the leader had learned to drive a stick shift, and that’s exactly what he needed to teach his employees to do.

Ever learn to drive a stick shift? Remember the jerking accelerations, the stalling out, and the harrowed look of the person in the passenger’s seat who had offered (or was cajoled) into teaching you? With more time and experience you had a sense of mastery. During challenging driving conditions, you could more skillfully drive your car, downshifting for better traction and upshifting when you were past the hard parts.

A Lifetime Skill: Navigating Transitions

During our conversation, the NASA leader developed a vision for his role as change agent with his employees. He wanted them to view the current situation as an opportunity to develop a lifetime skill–the ability to actively manage transitions, adjusting to changing conditions as they occurred–whether these transitions were professional or personal.

To again use the auto analogy, the leader was actively “shifting gears” according to new conditions, versus relying on “automatic,” which only adjusts to changes in speed. With the vision firmly in place, our phone conversation ended and the leader then developed the details of its implementation. I have no doubt about its efficacy.

If you are faced with a similar situation and your employees are still struggling to embrace the transition, be aware of something I’ve learned working extensively with leaders and teams:

People are both more fragile than we’d ever guess, and they are more resilient than they even know!

Share Your Experience, Strength and Hope

As the senior-most leader, you must address both. Paint the larger picture—that learning to navigate change is a lifetime skill. it increases the individual’s, teams and your organization’s resilience. Share your experience, strength and hope.

You might also share this quote from Joseph Campbell which allows for the vicissitudes of life and still allows us to fully embrace it.

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”


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