How can you initiate necessary changes so that your teams will embrace new ideas with enthusiasm? What if changed has been dumped on you from above? How do you manage? Change is constant and change is hard. In this episode, host Elizabeth Bachman and her guest Sue Firth give us strategies for coping with change, whether you are leading it, or dealing with it. Sue is a business psychologist, author, and professional adviser. She is also a leading authority on stress, resilience, and well-being. Join Elizabeth and Sue as they give their take on how to deal with managing change so that you can put your stress at an all-time low.
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Strategically Managing Change With Sue Firth
Before we get started, I’d like to remind you that if you are curious about your presentation skills, you can take our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong in your presentation skills and where perhaps a little support could get you better results and the recognition that you deserve. My guest is Sue Firth, who is a Business Psychologist, a Business Coach, and an Executive Trainer. She’s a very interesting woman. She’s also a leading authority on stress, resilience, and wellbeing.
As an author, she helps CEOs and senior executives manage their work, life and become more resilient. She’s an international speaker and presenter and holds both a Bachelor’s in Science and a Master’s degree. She’s a Psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society and the Health Professions Council. She regularly appears in the media and the press and has been a guest expert on ITV and the BBC.
She’s also committed to making a difference in the way people think and to teach them how to moderate their habits so that they can reduce any difficulties they have while still maintaining their effectiveness. She’s got extensive experience in consulting for both the management of change and the implementation of stress programs to support employees. You’ll find a lot. We had a wide range of interviews and lots of topics. She had direct and on-the-spot answers for all my questions, which was a joy. Let’s go now to the interview with Sue Firth.
Sue Firth, I’m so happy to have you as a guest on the show. Welcome.
Thank you so much. It’s a real pleasure to be here.
Before we get into strategically managing change, I wanted to ask you who would be your dream interview? If you were to have a conversation with someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
I’m answering your question genuinely about who I would like to speak to and that would be Oprah Winfrey. For years, I’ve watched her show, and as a Psychologist, I’m very interested in the way she plays to the audience and works the audience. That has always interested me. For some reason, I rate the ability to do that. I love newscasters and interviews for that reason. We have a couple over here in the UK who have passed, and I would have loved to have known Terry Wogan.
That’s probably not necessarily somebody that you know but those people who know how to get an audience to live and brighten up. That’s because I’m a speaker and what I want to do is to say, “What’s it like being on the TV? How does it feel? Was it something you always wanted to do?” That’s because I’ve spent my fair share of time being on the TV. I didn’t become a celebrity, but I jokingly say I’m a failed actress.Employees are unable to relate to the real merit in what it is that's being designed for them at a strategic level. Click To Tweet
I started as an actor so I can relate to that. It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as we are going back into offices. There are so many companies that are doing hybrid meetings. The best way I’ve thought about dealing with that is to pretend you’re Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Kimmel, or whichever talk show hosts you watch. Pretend that you’re a talk show host and you’re talking to some of the live audience and you’ve got to be paying attention to them. You also have the camera and you have to treat the camera as another person.
It’s interesting because when you are in front of the television and you finish a sentence, you always have to keep eye contact with the camera for those few more seconds so that they can then cut it. People who are not used to doing that will look away a lot of the time and they’re all over the show with their eye contact, which is quite interesting, but not a very good flow for the TV. It’s something that, for some reason, I managed to master. I tend to have a fairly intense there. I think I’m the opposite.
Most of the time, when we’re doing hybrid things, we’re doing the conversation you and I are having where we are managing it ourselves. A director in the control booth is a real luxury. I know people who are terrified by it, but I think, “There’s someone who’s going to be watching this and trying to do this.”
Back in my opera days, especially when I was working at the Metropolitan Opera, a couple of times, I was allowed to sit during a telecast if it wasn’t my show. I was allowed to sit in the TV trailer with the director while watching the way the director was positioning all the various cameras. I was in awe. That’s not something that I ever learned but I understand how much work that happens.
That’s an interesting segue for us because the fact that I’m talking about leaders, managing, and getting the best out of people is a little bit of what we’re talking about. Not all of them know how to do that well.
One other thing about television. If you grow up in the film and television industry, you can always control where the audience focuses and which camera is looking. I remember watching an early rehearsal of the musical Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews. They were in tryouts in Chicago. I loved that movie. I said, “Let me go see this.”
You could point up those moments in the movie and get a quick look at something that was happening that didn’t work at all on stage because Blake Edwards had not done a whole lot of stage direction and he didn’t know how to throw the audiences focused to the moments that he was trying to feature. I loved the musical. I wanted it to be good. I had this long list of things you can do to make it better. I thought, “This is terrible hubris. Be quiet and let them figure it out themselves.” I was ready to tell Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews how to fix their musical, but I chickened out.
I’m excited to have you here because you, as someone who works with leaders and comes from a therapy background, I was very curious about what you could talk about strategically managing change both from the point of view of the person who has it foisted on them and someone who is having to set up change for their company. By this, I’m talking about reorganizations and changes within a company. Although I imagine the last couple of years of how COVID changed everything for most of the world, I’d be curious to know your thoughts on that.
The first thing is I’m a Business Psychologist. We are a hybrid of business expertise because I spent 30 years talking and working with corporates and being a facilitator, strategic consultant, and psychologist, which means I understand people. I would say that one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is they try and do too much. In general, their whole premise and value system is tied into looking ahead. They are future-focused all the time.
They’re developing a strategy with the future in mind where COVID is concerned is that upset a lot of their plans because they had to button down the hatches and bring it much more short-term, but that’s not such a bad thing. One of the gifts that will have given them is the ability to see this through the eyes of the recipient much more by bite-size chunks and smaller chunks. It will have been a lot more manageable for most people to have coped with. In general, what they try and do is too much and too far ahead that other people struggle to relate to.
I don’t mean topics X necessarily because they have a very similar emphasis or leadership perspective on things. Certainly, the recipients and the rest of the business are usually unable to relate to the real merit and what it is that’s being designed for them at a strategic level or possibly they don’t get very much input to that.
My first observation is to be very careful to appreciate the fact that everybody in life has a limited bandwidth and they are much happier when they know what it is that they need to get done in exactly what period of time, and they need to know what good looks like. If you learn to button down the hatches, my word would be to take a bite-sized chunk and get them to focus on what it is that you want within that bite-sized chunk, AKA 3 to 6 months tops. That’s much better for everybody, leadership and employee combined.
Tell us a little bit about what “good” looks like.
What that means is a lot of leaders don’t explain well enough what it is that they truly want. They know how to express rather than a rater, “This is what that business is drawing for it.” It’s the big leadership speech, whether they do that on or off the platform, meaning a big, large town hall meeting, which is my metaphor for meeting everybody or online these days. They can’t do that big presentation. They have to then ground that in, “What does that look like in practice? What does that mean that we’re looking for?” You aim for two KPIs, meaning two initiatives maximum.A lot of leaders don't explain well enough what it is that they truly want. Click To Tweet
For example, let’s maximize profits and reduce our costs because those two initiatives are likely to have the greatest meaning for the business, and therefore by default, the greatest meaning for you as the employee. That means that when each person goes away and then starts to talk to their immediate manager in their team, they begin to say, “What does that mean we need to do it for our part marketing, sales, ops, HR, and so forth? They convert it in order for us to increase profits and reduce costs. What do we need to do?”
The team then begins to crystallize what that looks like in practice and report back to the leader for that bite-sized chunk. If the opportunity to feedback is regular and if they get told they’re on track, that’s what good looks like. It doesn’t look so good when communication is poor, they don’t get told frequently enough, they’ve got too many plans on the boil all the time, and they’re too far ahead. That’s what I mean.
Could you give us an example of classic mistakes you see leaders make in this area?
Unfortunately, what they tend to do is either get very autocratic, “You will do what I tell you to do. I know what’s best. Therefore, let’s make sure we do it either to my plan or my way.” Most executives who were part of that senior team would prefer to feel that they’re there for a reason, they’re there to share the load, or they also have an input to all of that. The classic mistakes are, “I override you. I machine-gun you meaning whatever you say, I shoot it down quickly. That didn’t have merit, so let’s shoot that one down as well.” In which case, you already knew what you wanted in the first place and you already had all of the answers on why employ all these people? What’s the point?
Better leadership is what we’re looking for. Poor leadership is in general, especially when you manage to change the norm, which is a mistake. In other words, what happens when people come on to super pressure is it exposes the leadership flaws that were already in place. Some of the biggest errors is planning too far ahead like, “For the next couple of years, we will do X.” It’s not possible to do that. COVID has brought to us more than at any other time.
We have to remain flexible and almost supple like a gymnast so that you can maneuver and flip them to turn things around and alter them. That’s curious because most people would tend to misinterpret that and think that’s a bad thing because that means you might move the goalpost not if you’ve involved people, informing them and asking for their input. That’s what good looks like versus those are the classic mistakes I find.
If you see this happening in your organization, say you’re maybe a couple of layers down and you recognized it, do we, as the worker bees, have any chance to influence that if you can see this pattern happening?
It would be great if you feel like you could try. What you would then do more than likely is connect with the person who’s most immediate to you, that would be your immediate manager, and then ask them to feed that backup. If you feel like you’re a lone voice, go on the hunt for several people. Ask to develop a feedback forum, a small focus group, or something similar so that you can be fronting a small project group that would be taking a sounding within the business about what’s working and not working now. It’s in the interests of the leadership to listen to that.
If you pitch it, it’s a productive meeting and not a whingeing meeting then it becomes a constructive critique of situations or a feedback mechanism rather than saying, “Let’s complain.” Most are very reluctant to want to open the box for fear of what’s inside because they don’t like perceiving that there will be a lot of complaints. To be fair, there aren’t always. Lots of people find that they have got a decent job, a decent boss, or they are pretty well-managed, but that doesn’t mean they themselves like change. Change is a struggle psychologically.
One of the reasons is that it’s disruptive to our comfort zone. We have a comfort zone for a reason. We like comfort zones on the home because comfort zones are about controlled confidence. They help us cope because we understand it. That’s because it’s either familiar or we trust what’s happening to us and better still whether by choice. If we were able to keep all of those criteria of intent but still push you out of your comfort zone and generate change, this, too, would be okay with us because we’d still be protected or feel safe. What happens instead with most change initiatives is they go too fast, there’s too much, or we’re under too much pressure to deliver it.
Therefore, we feel solidly under pressure to deliver with no real approval or sense of success. I don’t know that I did anything to help with this, but I sure know I didn’t because you’re telling me I’d done it wrong. It’s painful. In a way, it’s almost a simple as being able to say you can’t ask people to live outside their comfort zone and then not tell them they’re doing okay for you.
That’s a very good phrase. Say that one again. That’s a good one.
You can’t ask them to live outside their comfort zone for you and then not tell them that they’re doing okay in the process.
I have clients who have worked very hard to get a good team together. They get all the team balanced and then upper management comes in and says, “You’re doing so well. I’m going to take this person and put them here and that person put them there,” which is not where those people want to be at all and it destroys this beautiful thing that you’ve built. I have seen that happen. I’ve had it done to me. What can we do personally first, besides scream and bash our head against the wall?If you cannot influence or control the circumstances. The only thing you can influence or control is yourself. Click To Tweet
If you are the other person being displaced, you’re perfectly within your rights to go to the management and say, “I was much happier over there in X, Y or Z, but I can either do this for you in the short-term and I will do it happily if I now know what it is you want from me and that there’s a reason and a purpose for this.” If you don’t feel informed enough, make sure that you ask so you can tick the boxes with all that bits of information because you will feel better and more settled if you know why you’re being asked to do something.
If you feel like you’ve got a voice where you can say, “This isn’t quite suiting me, but I get that you need me to do this. Can I please log it with you, though that I’d like to meet again with you in the next months, whatever you think is realistic, so that we can talk again about my role? It’s because if I’m still not happy at that point, I’d like to be able to revisit this.” You can put that as constructively as you like, but I still feel it’s terribly important that you feel heard. If that’s how you truly feel, try it and see what happens.
The bottom line is if you know it’s been imposed and you have to get to grips with it, make sure that you know what’s involved, you’re still human and there’s only so much you can get done in each and every day, so let’s put my stress hat on instead of my change hat now. I start every day with what is the one thing I need to get done now that will make the greatest difference, and that’s how you start every day.
If you prioritize exactly what it is like the focal point and you have a goal each and every day that makes you feel like you’re ticking the boxes, you are achieving something and you’re getting through the to-do lists that they’ve set you, you at least then can hold onto a very strong, grounded feeling that you are being as successful as you can be given the circumstances they’ve asked.
This sounds like if you cannot control all your circumstances, choose the things that you can control.
I would probably share the fact that if we imagine one hand is controlled and the other one is influenced is where it crosses over that you have the greatest ability to do something with. It’s almost back to the self-help gurus who say, “If you cannot influence or control the circumstances, the only thing you can influence or control is yourself.”
If you feel like you’re a good fit, you still love the business or the work, you still feel that you’re able to do a good job or that you’re important, they will come back around to thank you at some point in the future when they’ve recognized that they can or that it’s slowed down a bit to do so. If they neglect you, they don’t say thank you, and you still don’t feel right in the business, that’s a different conversation, which admittedly is quite understandable, but where you would have that again at a point in the future.
You deserve to be happy and if they are not good enough to you and they have never been or they never will be, that’s a different feeling. That’s not about managing change. It’s about managing your life on the next trip to your life. That’s a different combo that you take a little bit of time to talk to a few friends, go for careers, advice, or whatever you feel is the most constructive. Maybe even talk to someone like me and work out, “What’s in it for me? What am I getting and is this ticking those boxes?”
The fact that so many managers and upper management are answering to the shareholders and not the stakeholders or the people who are actually doing the work, they are asking people to put in all this extra time when the pandemic started and here we are still going through it. That’s one of the reasons why so many people are resigning and quitting.
Over here, we’ve got our fair share of the ones who are now deciding. This thing is here a bit to stay. We now have hybrid working practices, but those aren’t going to go away. How can we accommodate those? What do we need to do? They’re having bigger and better conversations with the employees. Also, those that can’t afford it are saying thank you in the form of a small bonus, which we’ve called the COVID bonus, because it’s like saying, “You’ve done it well. Thank you so much for everything. You’ve held us together. We’re still intact. I’m proud. Thank you.” When they set the goalposts for next year, they’re setting them more realistically shorter timeframes with greater constructive input from people. They need to do that because people do know what they want. They are not some impotent load of idiots who have no say.
It is so unfair that we as women have to feel like we have to ask ourselves this, but it is true in some still. In line with Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent book of Lean In, I would still say to you that it is such a thing as waiting for too long and sitting back, or letting other people take the limelight or giving away our power. The difficulty with that is psychologists call it Tiara Syndrome, which is if I do a great job someday, somebody is going to come and put a Tiara on my head and say, “Thank you.”
I totally understand why we did this, but because on a bit short of time, I don’t wish to sound brusque, but I am going to be very straight when I say we can’t afford to do this. If we do this, then we’ve gone very black and white, and the world is not black and white. What I mean by that is just because we go and start to try to say, “I think, what about, have you thought of or should we,” which was great starting sentences to points that we make means that we are attempting to influence and to say, have a say and have an opinion.
It’s very important that we do that. We cannot hide our light under a bush and say nothing to any circumstances or situation and the mistaken belief that the opposite will happen and that will get found eventually. This won’t happen, so just because we do have an opinion, it doesn’t mean it’s that black and white and that now we are bragging. Now we are full of ourselves and therefore, we are obnoxious. We’ve got to be very careful not to see but just because we are speaking means that we are now going to be seen as unacceptably full of ourselves.
However, it’s always by degree, you don’t have to stand in front of a mirror and say to everybody else that, “I am brilliant.” That obviously will cause some struggle the man, woman, or anything else. The key is where you don’t feel you’re going to be well-received if you keep using the word I, then say we. We, as a team, have this great opportunity and this great constructive thought.If you wouldn't apologize to yourself, don't feel like you need to apologize to others. Don't apologize for living. Click To Tweet
We have discussed this. We suggest. When you do that, you are seen as integrated and all connected and you are not speaking for you. You will carry a position of strength in your tone and opportunity in the options that the suggestions that you’ve come up with and that can be better received. We soften it, but don’t dumb it down.
I think of this as walking the tight rope between respected and bossy, and yes, there are sharks underneath. It is a tight rope, which is what women have to do and people of color have to walk this tight rope. If you are in the minority in any situation, walk the tight rope between sticking to your value and talking about it. One of the things I know that women often do is they will soften their suggestion by saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know if it’s okay to say this.” Things like that.
Mind your language, watch what you are saying and hear it for yourself. If you wouldn’t apologize to yourself and don’t feel like something you’re going to say to others needs to be apologize for, don’t apologize for living.
Thinking about managing change on a different level, do you have any suggestions for what to do if you have a manager who is threatened by you and is blocking you?
I feel so sympathetic for anybody who is experiencing that. Sometimes, you have to be prepared to get a little bit of a would-be psychologist and work out where are they coming from here? What is the pain point? What’s going wrong for them that they feel the need to do this? What are they attempting to control? Who you are, what you are, what you want, what you’re trying to do, what is it? Is it that they stop you in everything? Is it that they stopped everybody else too? Is it just you? Is it also the way they behave with other people? There could be more going on.
I’m not saying that’s a good thing, unfortunately, but they could be. This is terribly easy for me to say and very much more difficult to do. I do understand that. Try not to take it so personally that you take it for so long that you no longer have the ammunition or the way to be able to step back and think about what’s going on. If you’re in that position, do this for me just for a few weeks and see where you feel you’re at.
See whether you spoke and find a way in that then asks for a one-to-one where you say when you do X, it has the effect of, “Why could I suggest something else instead with me?” You’re having a discussion about your expectations or about what it is that you feel, he or she expects from you, and what you think you’d like to recommend instead. My answer sounds a bit long-winded, but it is about exploring, identifying first of all, and then you truly know what it is you’re dealing with. That’s much easier to then start to use a tool in your kit bag that’s specific for what you’re seeing.
I don’t like to see the masculine and feminine communication styles more single-focus versus multifocus. I see a lot that women tend to take things very personally, especially negative feedback. They think it’s something about them. The person who’s single-focused had never occurred to them that this would be personal.
They’re going ahead with what they’re doing and maybe they should be paying attention to how the other person is feeling. What happens is the person who does not feel heard begins to resent and then lives in resentment until suddenly it explodes. Do you have any suggestions on how to recognize this? Once you’re aware of it, how to manage it?
Genuinely, one of the reasons why our friends are great for us is because the whole process of downloading to somebody else is a good way to calibrate exactly what they are hearing. What they are hearing is usually more accurate than what they’re seeing or feeling. What we’re doing is filtering it through all of our previous experiences, good, bad and indifferent, either with this person or with anyone else.
What we’re not able to do is to separate previous events, experiences or even if it’s with a completely different person from what we’re hearing now. They tend to Velcro together. As they Velcro, they mushroom and as they mushroom, they become a catastrophe. What this means must be and I have to leave as a result or whatever it is. I would almost ask you to look for the most constructive person to do that too, so think about your friends, a therapist, or a constructive third person or party that you could talk to.
Be very specific with your examples. Don’t just say he or she seems to be X, Y, or Z with me. Tell specific examples. When you do that, you relay them and you pour them out on the table, you may even find it in the process of doing, so you recognize 50% of the dynamic that is present in that moment is also coming to the table from you. What are you doing or not doing? What are you finding is happening in you physically?
If you know that you’ve always hated criticism because your parents used to do it, don’t be surprised if you bring that into the workplace and help but feel very sore, raw or upset whenever somebody has something, even if they’re being constructive. This is what you can influence. Influence how you respond and they will respond differently.
Don’t look so much to make a change to them. You can try the feedback approach when you do X. It has the effect of Y, but most of it would be, “Let’s talk about what it’s doing to me, catch that early enough, and unpack that well enough.” You begin to say, “I think what I’m doing is I’m staying silent when I could be saying no because I keep saying yes, and I probably ought to say no.” Don’t let your mouth add the load to your back. Learned behavior is exactly that.Don't let your mouth add the load to your back. Click To Tweet
Jim Rohn was one of the self-help gurus. He had a great expression. I don’t necessarily like it, but it would appear to be true. Everything you have now, you have attracted in. If you don’t like it, let’s look at what you can change. He always meant that in a constructive way. Learn more, read more, think more, do more and you will attract to something different. Maybe there’s truth in that but I think there’s also truth in unpacking what you are doing and your part that you’re playing, then maybe there’s also some learning there too.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I see the pattern often with women who are frustrated and they say, “I should leave.” Sometimes, you should, but sometimes you should try to see what’s going on. I know it happens a lot in male-dominated workplaces where they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit good women in senior positions and then they don’t know how to talk to these women.
After a couple of years, the women say, “I’m sorry, I’m not worth it. I’m done.” If we’re aware that this is a pattern, then you can look at it and say, “Am I falling into an old trap? Is this real? I hate it when you do that, but I’m not going to say anything because you’re the powerful one. I don’t want to make a fuss.”
Now is the time where we need to bring in a diversity or inclusion consultant who would help us know how we need to integrate together so that we get the best out of each other. Sometimes, this is exactly what organizations need and you articulated it beautifully. They spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars, they bring in this great athlete and then don’t know how to treat them. There’s no point bringing in a player if you’re not going to know how to treat them because you’ve got to be able to have an environment that keeps them.
That’s in everything from the way you lead, manage and talk to them, deal with their input, respect and value them. You’re absolutely right. Third-party would probably be the way I would send that. That is a message that’s always going to be touched on uncomfortable. Don’t automatically leave because that is pulling back until you’ve tried everything you possibly can, including taking it to a third party, going for coaching, mentoring, or whatever else you can think of to do. Stay the course and stay for as long as you possibly can, influencing it to the best of your ability. Don’t give up.
That is a great line to end on. Sue Firth, you have a fabulous podcast called The Executive Edge that I highly recommend. Thank you so much for coming to the show. I’m thrilled to have you here and I’m so glad to have met you. I’m sure that we will have many further conversations.
That’s great. Thank you for having me, Elizabeth.
This has been Speakers Who Get Results. Let me remind you that if you enjoyed it, please subscribe on whatever podcast app you listen to and leave us a good review. You can also go and subscribe to our YouTube channel. If you’re curious about your presentation skills, you can take our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and we’re perhaps a little bit of support would get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve. Thank you very much. I will see you on the next one.
- Sue Firth
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About Sue Firth