Why Leaders Need to Stop “Making Changes”

by Pamela Jett, CSP

Group of successful young business persons together

A few days ago I had the privilege to work with one of my favorite clients, Norton Healthcare in Louisville, KY.  I’ve been working with them for the past several months facilitating their Women’s Leadership Academy.  This academy is made up of bright, motivated, and professional women leaders from around the healthcare system.  Discussions are consistently robust, thought provoking and lively. In addition to sharing communication and leadership skills with them, I always learn something from the attendees.  This session was no exception.

As leaders, the words we choose to use and the words we choose to lose can make all the difference in our effectiveness.  During this session we were talking about how to best navigate the pushback or resistance that teams will often display when a new policy or procedure is being implemented or when change is happening. An attendee, Beth, made a very astute observation. An observation that got me thinking and all of us talking.

Beth mentioned that she has learned in her leadership role that often team members have a very adverse reaction (notice, I didn’t say response) to the mere uttering of the word “change.”  This is true even if the “change” is a small one, or a change with extremely obvious positive benefits, or one that people have been lobbying for.  Team members often hear the word “change” and immediately go into resistance mode or become skeptical. Some team members can even become downright angry or hostile towards the change process before it even begins.

Has this been your experience?  It has been mine.  It also makes sense.  One of the things we know from neuroscience, is that the brain classifies “change” as “threat.” When humans feel threatened, all of the adverse reactions noted above are not only understandable, they are even predictable.

So, what can a savvy leader do?  Clearly, creating a team where nothing changes is not only a poor choice, it is not possible. Change is inevitable. Without change there is no growth. Change is necessary for teams, organizations, and even societies to thrive. The question becomes how to best manage change and lead people through the change process.

Good advice on that subject is easy to find.

Good leaders typically implement that good advice.

And yet, people still are resistant.

Here is where the Women’s Leadership Academy participant, Beth, made an astute observation and offered a savvy tip. Stop using the word “change” as often as possible. She shared that it had been her experience that if she could replace the word “change” with a different word, the resistance was less instantaneous and often less intense. Here are some of the words Beth and the other attendees agreed could work.

  • Adjust
  • Tweak
  • Upgrade
  • Enhance
  • Fine-tune
  • Refine

Obviously, this is only the start of what could be a very long list.  What words can you think of?

Words matter. From the receiver’s perspective, it is much more palatable to hear “we are going to adjust this process” or “we are going to upgrade this process” than “we are going to change this process.”

“It’s time to fine-tune our approach” sounds, and is, more positive than “it’s time to change our approach.”

The new wording sets people up for a positive experience and is less likely to trigger the “threat” reaction. It also allows people to know what they have been doing wasn’t all bad or all wrong. It allows leaders to stay positive (relentlessly positive), even when delivering a message that can sometimes be negative. 

Savvy leaders know that the words the words they choose to use can make all the difference. Making the effort to choose positive words as opposed to negative words (and change is often perceived as a negative) can become a key leadership success differentiator. Take the opportunity to replace “change” and watch resistance and pushback lessen and compliance and even enthusiasm increase.

Pamela Jett is a communication skills and leadership expert who knows that words matter! In her keynote presentations, workshops, books and online learning programs, she moves beyond communication theory into practical strategies that can be implemented immediately to create the kind of leadership, teamwork, and employee engagement results her clients want.

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