We live in a VUCA world today—times characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Organizations are continuously shifting, restructuring, growing, downsizing/rightsizing, bringing new leadership on-board and/or acquiring new people and resources as well as frequently investing in new and advanced technology.

Most managers will experience major changes like these several times in their careers and must cope with their own emotions and uncertainties along with those of their direct reports. These changes inevitably bring uncertainty and anxiety.

In trying times, the role of the manager as coach becomes critical in helping employees cope with change—not just with the big changes, but also with the smaller ones, such as new team members, new standards, a new culture or new ways of working.

Experts are divided over the role of external coaching, with many arguing that the pace of change does not allow for the luxury of hiring a coach. Unless change interventions are planned well in advance, allowing external coaches to work closely with senior leaders to help them become better mentors, these coaches may find it hard to understand the complete context.

Muniinder Anand, managing director, India and South Asia, of the US-based leadership development organization Center for Creative Leadership, says: “Our research shows that coaching can play a key role in overcoming those odds. But it’s essential to differentiate the use of coaching for development from coaching for change. The coach’s main mandate is to support the leader to anticipate and overcome the hurdles that come with changes." The manager/leader being coached in this case serves as a change agent and helps others navigate difficult times.

Change management practitioners frequently advocate the use of the change curve, a popular model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organizational change. Attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and her work on personal transition in grief and bereavement, the simplest model identifies four stages of the change curve: denial, anger, exploration and acceptance.

Denial: At this stage, people may be in shock or in denial. This is when the reality of change hits, even if the change has been well planned—people don’t truly understand what is happening. They need time to adjust. This is when they need information to understand what is happening, and need to know how to get help. A leader-coach needs to keep it simple, repeat key facts often, and communicate in person.

Anger: The next natural step is the anger phase. Employees may resist the change actively or passively. For the organization, this stage is the “danger zone". Providing support is of the essence here. The leader-coach must listen, listen and listen and not try just to problem-solve. He must focus on short-term goals, especially if she is in the dark about the future or not at liberty to talk.

Exploration: This is the turning point for individuals and the organization. Individually, as acceptance grows, people will need to test and explore what the change means. Encouragement is what employees need at this stage, and that is what the leader coach must provide.

Acceptance: The final stage when individuals successfully come through the “change curve". The need for change is understood and the person is learning to live with it, getting involved in the change and dealing directly with it. The leader-coach must reinforce objectives and celebrate success.

Take the recent example of the Croatian president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who supported her team through a deeply disappointing defeat. Standing by a losing World Cup football team (in pelting rain) may not be the best example of turbulent or tough times but it definitely is a fine example of exemplary leadership.

But remember, models like the Kübler-Ross curve cannot be a substitute for trusting your own instincts as a manager, and keeping your sense of humour and optimism intact. That’s really what makes a hard transition a little less hard—and the emotional dip a little less severe.

Ruchira Chaudhary is an independent strategy professional, an executive coach and adjunct faculty. She divides her time between Singapore and India.

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