How to Manage Staff Concerns During Rapid Change

A reader asks:

“I manage about 20 people in a small business that is rapidly growing and expanding. We are fortunate to have many long-term employees. Our previous two managers left about a year and a half ago, and I was promoted and joined a new management team of three. We are very productive and work amazingly well together. I have always tried to be very clear to my employees that I’m always available to answer questions, listen when they have concerns or are unhappy, and support them in any way that will ensure that they are able to do their jobs well.

As we’ve been making some necessary (and hard for some, because change can be hard) changes lately, I’ve been a little stumped about how to answer certain questions from my staff. I don’t want to be the boss that says “it is what it is,” “none of your business,” or “because I said so,” but as not everyone is going to adapt to changes as well as others, I find myself in very lengthy conversations about how they are unhappy with change. I try my best to be diplomatic and take concerns seriously, but sometimes I feel like I want to say, “As your manager, this is how I’m telling you to do it and this is the way it needs to be. I do basically say this, but I feel it comes across as harsh and as if I’m not taking what they’re telling me seriously. Tips?”

Well, first, the fact that you’re being thoughtful about this and don’t want to just rest on “because I said so” speaks well for how this is likely to play out – because you’re right that it’s important to take people’s input seriously and not to dismiss concerns. That said, you’re also right that sometimes decisions need to go in a different direction from what your staff want, and it’s not reasonable to spend huge amounts of time debating that or rehashing when you need people moving forward.

The basic formula you want in your situation is this:  ”I hear you, and I appreciate the input. We’ve decided to do it this way because ___. Let’s try it for now and we can always revisit it down the road if we need to.”

The keys here are that you’re letting them know you hear them and you’re sharing the reasons for why the decision is something different. You’re also letting them know that if it causes real problems, the subject can be reopened later on – but that for now, you need to move forward with the current plan.

Now, obviously, you do really want to hear people out and be open-minded about their input. It’s possible that you might hear something that changes your mind about how you want to proceed, and you want to be truly open to that — both because you’ll get to the best solutions that way, and because people can tell if you’re genuinely open to hearing them or not.

But if your mind isn’t changed — or if it’s not something that can be revisited right now, for whatever reason — then the formula above is what you use.

And if someone doesn’t accept that as an answer and keeps resisting, then you address that. For example: “I understand that you’re concerned because ____. However, we’ve chosen to do it this way because ____, and now I need you on board with that.” And if they still keep resisting even after that, then you address it more seriously: “I’ve heard your concerns on this, but as I’ve explained before, we’re doing this way because ___. At this point, it’s not something that we can continue revisiting and I need to know that you’re able to accept that, even though this isn’t the decision you would have made. Can you do that?”

But I think you’ll find that by being open about why the decisions are what they are, and by clearly communicating that you do value input but that at times you or someone else needs to make a different decision, people will be more likely to respect your decision and support what you’re asking of them.

For more advice on managing people and projects during rapid change, sign up for our May 14 webinar or request the OnDemand recording and free assets.














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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