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How Can Leaders Retain Key Talent Through Unexpected Change?

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We’re only a little way into 2020, yet we’ve already rung in several changes — from the Australian bush fires to uncertainty in the Middle East, to shake-ups in the Royal Family. And in business, we find ourselves firmly in an era of transience, where it’s often said that change has become the ‘new normal’.

Deloitte recently published their 2019 Insights report highlighting that annual US mergers and acquisitions alone run into the trillions, with no expectation of slowing for the foreseeable future.

Add to that the revolutionary potential of innovations like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Brexit, climate change, and other global events; it is obvious as we head into 2020 that a changing and uncertain business landscape is not going anywhere soon.

What Does This Mean for Talent Management?

Significant change can have a negative impact on even your highest performers, which may come as a surprise if they have previously had consistently good output. Engagement and motivation can quickly dwindle, resulting in them becoming less productive or, in the worst-case scenario, leaving the business altogether.

It’s vital then that leaders are skilled in coaching and guiding their teams through change, building resilience, and being aware of the first signs of trouble. And they’ll particularly want to keep an eye on those high performers who they least want to lose but may be presumed to be doing OK.

Why Is It a Surprise When People React Badly to Change?

For many leaders, managing the actual process of change can feel fairly predictable, supported as they are by the organization. Project teams, alongside Change and HR managers, often take care of the planning, design, and communication. 

What is less predictable and often left to leaders and line managers to solve alone is the way humans react to change. Often, these reactions are unique to individuals and vastly different from leaders’ own experiences. 

It can be hard to empathize when somebody reacts in a way that doesn’t seem natural to you — you might even find it frustrating and annoying when you’re trying to implement something for the good of the business and all its employees. 

The temptation might be to avoid discussing the issue, hoping your valued team member just gets over it. There can be long-term implications of taking an avoidant approach, however, including the loss of key employees.

To lower down the frustration level of project teams, it is wise to invest in project management software like ProProfs Project for seamless change management.

Project management software can really be handy in change management, as it gives you access to a myriad of features like Gantt charts, task priorities, timesheets, etc. to keep unanticipated project changes in check. 

What Can Leaders Do to Retain Talent at Times of Change?

The first thing to bear in mind is that when change happens, mainly when it is unexpected, we react as humans first and employees second.

Human brains process change using their three main areas of the brain— the primal (or reptilian), mammalian and complex brains: 

  • The purpose of the primal brain is to keep us safe, and it is programmed to react instinctively to perceived threats. Part of that is differentiating between things that are familiar (safe) and unfamiliar (dangerous). Although the nature of the unfamiliar has changed significantly — changes like redundancy, marriage/divorce and birth/death are much more likely to present themselves than a wild, angry boar — our brains still react in the same way, triggering the fight/flight/freeze response and sending stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins. 
  • Our mammalian brain then seeks to understand what’s happening, and this triggers our emotional responses, which could turn up as anxiety, stress, and depression. This is all well and good when faced with an angry bear, but when the ‘danger’ doesn’t recede quickly and instead goes on for days, weeks, or months, this part of the brain can become overloaded, leaving the victim traumatized.
  • Finally, our complex brain joins in to help us see a bigger picture and start the process of acceptance and integration.

While we all share these three zones, our reaction to change is still very much unique — and unpredictable. Some people will feel like they immediately start processing the change with their complex brain, and reach an understanding and acceptance quickly. For others, the primal brain takes over, and they feel a sense of loss, doubt, and even anger about the change. This can lead to withdrawal, a loss of trust in their employer, and, often, a significant drop in productivity.

Dial-Up Your Coaching Skills to Support Employees Struggling With the Change

You can’t force or fast-track a person to the acceptance stage, but you can still help guide employees towards a healthier reaction. The key to training and coaching others successfully through change is to enter every coaching conversation in a “conscious, neutral and agile” state:

  • Conscious – this is about being present in the conversation, not distracted. Switch your phone to silent and yourself 15 minutes before you enter the conversation to prepare and allow yourself to deal with any other pressure or thoughts that may be battling for your attention.Often, our diaries are back to back, and we roll from one meeting to another, barely processing all the information we’ve just heard. When coaching others who are struggling through change, it is so important to be present and actively listen.
  • Neutral – for these conversations to be really impactful, they need to be entirely focused on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of your team members. How you think about their current reaction to the change needs to be left outside the coaching conversation. Your role is to create a space where they feel comfortable sharing what is “real” for them, so you can help them work through any concerns or worries. Using open-ended questions and “playing back” what you have heard will help your team member focus in on what is actually happening for them and what they need to do to help them process the change
  • Agile – being flexible is as important as being neutral. Let your team members take you where they need to go and at the pace that works for them. This can be tough if you’re already excited about the next stage, and they’re still processing the changes in the primal zone of their brain, but it’s vital that you don’t rush them through the stages of acceptance.

Ask open-ended questions to drive the conversation

Here are some powerful questions you can ask to help keep the conversation moving forward without influencing the employee’s answers:

  • What is the worst that can happen now you know about this change? What will you do if this does happen?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • Describe the thoughts you are having about the change?
  • What are your specific concerns?
  • What would you tell someone in your shoes to do?
  • What do you need to do next?
  • What information about the change do you still need?
  • Who can give it to you? How will you get the extra information you need?


Dealing with a major change can be highly stressful, even if the change is ultimately for the better. As we’ve seen, our primal instincts can influence the way we react to change before the analytical part of our brain steps in and makes sense of things. And while some people move quickly to the acceptance and understanding stage, for others, it’s a much longer process.

The way people around them respond to their distress can ultimately influence an employee’s journey towards acceptance, and whether or not they are left feeling traumatized. As a leader, it may or may not be part of your job to plan and implement large-scale restructuring projects, but it is most definitely your role to help guide your team through them. 

Understanding the psychology of change, and preparing yourself to coach team members through it, can help maintain morale and productivity — and, ultimately, keep your best talent on board.

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About the author

David is a Project Management expert. He has been published in elearningindustry.com, simpleprogrammer.com. As a project planning and execution expert at ProProfs, he has offered a unique outlook on improving workflows and team efficiency. Connect with David for more engaging conversations on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.