When asking a roomful of managers the question “who would admit to being a Control Freak?” what proportion would you say raise their hands? Well, a lot – and I should know since it’s a question I’ve asked many, many times.

We can’t cope with being ‘out of control’
As managers we tend to work on the basis that everything is within our control – we suffer a poor weekend’s retail sales due to appalling weather and we feel like it’s our fault; we lose market share as a competitor launches a brilliant new product and we beat ourselves up.

Yet all these things are outside our control; in fact it’s hard to come up with anything that IS directly in our control, apart from of course, our employees…….

Controlling our employees – the ultimate challenge?

We can’t control the weather, the competition or Acts of God, but surely we can control our employees, can’t we? After all, they are contracted to us and we give them money every month in return for very specific activities and performance. So if we can control our employees, why is it so difficult to get them to change? The answer is simple –most of our employees are Control Freaks too!

Creating genuine change – the five step plan
We human beings are simple creatures, and when change is imposed upon us we go through a five stage process before we come to own that change. Not only will people go through these five stages, they have to go through them and there is no skipping a stage on the way.

The five stages are:
1. Uncertainty
2. Denial
3. Negotiation
4. Reflection
5. Action

1. Uncertainty
Most of us live our lives according to a plan, even if it’s not conscious. Happiness is achieving something we’ve planned for – we love it when a plan comes together. Receiving news that change is to be imposed upon us creates uncertainty and we become 100% focussed on how it will affect us.

A thousand unanswered questions go through our heads – “will we still be able to book that holiday we’ve been planning? Will I have a new boss and what will they be like? What new jobs will I have to take on, and how will I know what to do? Where will I sit? Who will I be working with? Is this change it or is there stuff they’re not telling us yet? What will I tell my partner when I get home so that they are not worried?”

All human beings fear the unknown and may panic when it is clear other people are now in control of their lives.

To see just how close people are to insecurity, try this simple test (actually, please don’t as it’s abusive!) – walk up to one of your employees, tap them on the shoulder and utter the chilling words “Can I just have a minute……” Watch the blood drain from their face and notice how they think they’ve done something wrong immediately.

Organisations today are pressure cookers of ludicrous expectations. Scratch the surface and most employees are a heartbeat away from a state of insecurity and stress. It’s no wonder they expend huge amounts of emotional, physical and intellectual energy seeking to be (well, to feel at least) in control, and why the descent into insecurity is rapid and predictable.

Communicate change clearly, directly and simply
For these reasons, any communication about change needs to be crystal clear, brutally simple and direct. Remember, once you have announced the change, people stop listening as the brain chatter of insecurity takes over. But there must be no ambiguity and saving peoples’ feelings, as this simply serves up future trouble. It’s why the change message has to be given as non-negotiable. Since fear is going to be an issue anyway, we need people to be more fearful of the status quo than of the change. It’s called the ‘Burning Platform’. Exciting visions and symbolic goals are crucial to any change plan, but unless the Burning Platform is established, getting people to accept the inevitable discomfort involved in change is almost impossible.

Next, leaders must acknowledge the inevitable feelings of insecurity by enabling people to talk openly about their personal concerns, and accept these emotional reactions, without shirking from the change or retracting it. And, it is vital to start the process of painting an exciting future. Getting the change message right is equally as important as getting the change decision itself right.

2. Denial
Once people have absorbed the news, they go into denial. It’s not that they choose to be disruptive or resistant or difficult it’s an inevitable process, because the change has not been accepted psychologically.

Rationality kicks in and people start to think about past changes and realise that not everything they’ve been told has actually happened. They start second guessing our leaders’ motivations and endowing them with Machiavellian strategising. They decide to lie low, (to hide) and wait and see what happens.

This is disappointing for our leaders– they after all are very excited about the change. They’ve been living it for some months, agonising over it, creating the vision and now they’ve announced these exciting plans to the employees they can’t understand why people aren’t excited.

But the bad news has just started. What happens next is that people start talking to each other. They ask each other what they think about the change and share their insecurities so they feel better and reassured.

They conspire against the change because they want to feel safe again. And what makes them feel safe is agreeing with people around them that the change either won’t happen or that it won’t be as bad as it sounds. And since they cannot actively fight or run away, they must hide which means they will hold my conspiratorial conversations out of earshot of my leaders.

The denial phase is thus characterised by people sounding as though they are in agreement, using political language and ‘management speak’ and avoiding anything that sounds like a specific commitment.

Whilst it is still ok for people to be inactive and not openly committing in this phase, they need to be challenged by the leaders to expose the truth of their position, and to move them towards the next stage as quickly as possible. Whereas in the first phase leaders should ask people how they feel, and what concerns and anxieties the change brings up for people, in this phase people should be asked what they think, and what obstacles and barriers people can see that might stop the change happening.

3. Negotiation
Once people accept that change is going to happen whether they like it or not, they quickly move to negotiating, to wrestle back some element of control.

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This is one reason why leaders should contemplate making the change not just inevitable from the outset, but irreversible. People can resist a planned change for a long time, but it’s harder to resist a change that is already executed. I know we have all been taught that consensus is a good thing, and that involving people in future decisions is an effective way for them to truly own the plan, but this is the modern conundrum of leadership, and it’s why probably the most critical aspect of any change is for the leaders to decide up front what is non-negotiable.

Why? Because the negotiation phase is coming, and when we get there we need to be able to genuinely negotiate with our employees, not simply try and manipulate them into coming up with the right answer. Leaders need to be aware of this and be clear over any non-negotiable elements otherwise this stage will be mis-handled, and either too much ground, or indeed not enough, will be given to those expected to follow.

4. Reflection
Once employees have exhausted their negotiations and won some ‘concessions,’ or better still become inspired by the opportunities afforded by the change, we enter phase four – reflection. Before they can truly get on board, they must accept the change.

This is a private process. It involves them looking in the mirror and deciding they will accept and embrace the change and make it successful. They may need to talk to their partner and friends to ask them to validate their decision to accept the change. This reflection stage is vital and why we often ask or advise people to ‘sleep on it’. Isn’t it amazing how we feel differently about things when we’ve had a chance to ‘sleep on it’.

Of course back in our modern organisation, the compliance and even enthusiasm of employees during and at the end of the negotiation phase is often mistaken by the leader for total acceptance of the plan. This is a key mistake made many times for the reality is that the reflection phase must be navigated.

The leader must allow, even facilitate, a short period of quiet calm reflection, even if this is as simple as telling people to ‘take the weekend’ to think it over.

5. Action
There is no change without action. Ownership has to mean commitment and commitment is evidenced by action. It’s no good asking someone if they’re committed; as leaders we need to observe the actions of our people in performance, and then we know just how committed they are.

As human beings we feel back in control when we start living our life again according to some pre-determined plan that we feel is ours and no one else’s. So our actions might be small and even mundane, but they are the everyday actions of employees who are working again towards a common purpose and goals.

And so finally we move through to ownership, defined as follows………….that we believe in and evangelise the change as if it had been all our idea in the first place. This is the Holy Grail for most leaders – getting their people, their teams, their departments, their companies to ‘buy into’; to ‘own’ the change.

People will go through the five stages outlined above on their own, ‘naturally’, but it will take a long time and there will be much cost, risk and stress along the way. The biggest risk of all is that we will need to launch the next ‘generational’ change before our employees have come to a place of acceptance of the last one! Sound familiar?

Authentic leadership will take people through change
The job of the leader is to move (lead) people through these five stages as fast as possible – arguably the definition of leadership is to get people through these stages quicker than on their own.

So how long does it take? For a big change with huge potential impact on the lives of individuals, some organisations never complete the cycle, indeed some never get out of denial! But with authentic leadership, a big change might only take a matter of weeks to gain total acceptance and maximum commitment.

Authentic leadership means creating an emotional journey towards an inspirational vision of the future – creating a compelling Mission or Purpose – and then communicating this in such a way as the people who want to believe get on the bus, and those who do not get off.

It means asking the right questions of people at each stage. It means holding people and listening to their answers without shirking from the discomfort of the resistance that will naturally come.

It means being disciplined and applying sanctions – not allowing people to go back a stage once we have all moved on. It means ensuring that all conversations are authentic not superficial. It means noticing and acknowledging the emotions that will, indeed MUST be felt through the stages and celebrating them when they arrive on the scene – fear, uncertainty, guilt, sadness, grief, disappointment, denial, defensiveness, anger, frustration, jealousy, envy, betrayal, anxiety, depression, resignation, excitement, challenge, joy, happiness, calm, security, comfort, love, rejection, anticipation, elation, enthusiasm, energy, creativity, pride, honour, fulfilment.

We’re all Control Freaks, so resisting changes imposed upon us is in our DNA. So leaders need to know the Cycle of Ownership.