Part of 17 Years of Lessons Learned Series – Originally posted on LinkedIn
“I wish I’d taken more psychology courses in preparation for being a manager and leader,” I said to a fellow Director recently, echoing what I’ve said many times in the past. We were puzzled over a common situation — how do you figure out why a highly talented, highly motivated person is stumbling? Even at a place like Google, filled to the brim with overachievers, we regularly see people struggling to succeed. Not all of them are familiar with that challenge; many have been successful at everything they’ve done up until that point. Helping people develop and grow their careers is one thing, but nurturing people’s emotions, acceptance, and perseverance is a whole other skillset.
In my time as a manager in a well-known technical company, I’ve spent most of my time dealing with people, not machine, problems. How do we deal with conflict? Why do we get so angry or despondent by work challenges? Why do we lose our way mid-career? How do we deal with change? I’ve witnessed many employees’ life challenges: marriages and break-ups, parent’s deaths, sick children, pregnancies, miscarriages, fertility issues, addictions, mental and physical illness, eating disorders. I could go on, and I’ve personally experienced many things on that list. People may hide what’s going on in their life, but it’s never truly left at home.
What I learned over time — everyone says they are ‘fine’ and rarely are, and if you pretend they are “fine” then you won’t be able to motivate what you don’t understand.
“Acknowledge the emotional”
It sounds like I’ve always embraced emotion in the workplace like a true “bring your whole self to work” advocate. Not exactly:
“Alana sometimes expresses her thoughts in curt ways that can give the appearance of her not caring about what I’ve shared or how I feel. For instance, when I talked to her about how an occurrence had created setbacks to my work and how this occurrence had made me feel discouraged and negative, she didn’t seem to grasp that I needed someone to listen and sympathize for a moment. Alana gave me a curt reply, advising me on how to proceed to get the job done. When someone shares with Alana that she is feeling bad about something, I think Alana might consider it a cue to address or acknowledge the emotional aspects of the problem and not just the task.”
This was a journey for me. In my recent articles, I’ve spoken about courage for a reason; I became both more knowledgeable and braver through the course of my career. Time and time again, I realized that people needed more than just vocational instruction; they needed acceptance and respect. And to do that, you have to really listen and look people in the eye. And once I truly saw people, I couldn’t look away. I felt compelled to do more and that led to both coaching and leadership opportunities.
“We are going to need the kind of culture role modeling that Alana does.. I think Alana’s already invested time having performance and career conversations. I know she has spent significant time with me during a crossroads in my career which I appreciate.”
“I think it would be awesome to see Alana leveraging her experience and style to coach leaders and maybe perhaps, specifically, female leaders across Alphabet. She has the tenure, the historical and cultural context of what works well in Alphabet’s culture but also has the proven track record of how to lead people and organizations with humility, transparency and tenacity.”
The most common “everyday” elements I practiced over a long period of time: listening to what people said, making eye contact to assess the stress or emotion they may not be able to put into words, and taking the opportunities to comfort and support them more fully whether through coaching or simply a kind talk.
And one common pattern emerged: humans are pretty terrible with change.
Change is Coming
“Change management” is a skill we talk about frequently, at least in Silicon Valley. It’s the ability to lead and manage your team through business change. Most of us have done this to some degree — as a team undergoes rapid growth, a new manager, the year’s strategy plan, or simply a move to a new office location. After years of being a manager and leader, I could put together a nice set of slides, send solid emails, hold office hours, and coach people through any impact to them individually. These steps are all important because we each process and accept change differently.
Up until 2017, I would said that I was good at change management. But in 2017, the organization I had helped create and grow was dealt 3 major whammies at once: leadership changes, reorganization, and fundamental business and funding shifts. AND BOOM. You know what I knew about this kind of change management? Nada.
It turns out that normal change management does not prepare you for what I’ll call ‘extreme change management’. Around this time, I started to use this comparison: Normal business conflicts teach us a lot. We learn how to prepare ourselves for the storms — we don our metaphorical umbrellas and raincoats, we watch the weather forecast, we prepare accordingly. We come through just fine. Does that help us when a tornado comes? Not even a little.
So what’s different about extreme change management? Extreme emotions. What do you do for the despair people feel when there is a reorg and their job ceases to exist? When they’ve never really failed before and this is their first experience with it? How do you help people who feel guilty because they still have jobs? How do you weather the anger or, in some ways worse, the ambivalence people feel when you’ve wasted their time? When people feel powerless and out of control? And what’s the right environment to help everyone recover?
I won’t pretend there’s an easy answer. It’s a slog no matter how you go through it, but below are the 4 top things I have learned as both a leader and someone who was impacted by the changes. You can use these methods in a variety of situations, even when business is as usual, to support your team members through their difficult times.
#1: Respect the change curve.
Yes, people were angry. Yes, they were sad. That is the natural process we all go through to accept change (here are change curve examples). Each person processes change differently — some rage, and some move on quickly. One person whose role was eliminated booked my office hours for the next day and started pragmatically going through a spreadsheet of possible new roles and then cried. Another talked to me two months later about being depressed and unable to concentrate on the job search. No tears, just blunt and bleak honesty.
The emotional takeaway is to prep for the long haul. My desk is still open (like Lucy from Peanuts), and it’s now two years past those org changes and everyone has moved on to one or multiple new roles.
The more practical takeaway? Set up any training or assistance to occur over weeks or months. If you only have meetings or events in the first 1 – 2 weeks after a change hits, you’ll miss the people who need longer to recover. Also set up multiple ways for people to process change: individually, in in group settings, via counselors, via their managers. You’ll tap into the different ways people process change and help them move through the change curve better.
#2: Embrace emotion.
This is not the time to be afraid of tears, of dull eyes, bright eyes, blank eyes. Accept it all, including your own emotions.
The day after we announced role reductions for the first time, I needed to address my team. At that All-Hands, I was honest about how I felt and how I thought about the changes. I prepped for the audience, but I was still overcome by emotion that day as I tried to get through my spiel. When the tears came, I stopped and told an impromptu story about how I got through another hard time by telling myself “frogs, frogs, frogs” over and over again. Because frogs were the least emotionally laden thing that popped into my mind at the time.
Despite that blip or maybe because of it, I received positive feedback on that All-Hands — how it helped to bring people through a hard time. Yep, I cried and people loved it. At that moment, my team needed to see that I was human and these changes affected me too. People still bring up the frogs moment with me. Embrace it.
#3: Be as transparent as is helpful.
At various time during these org changes, I knew in advance more than my team did about what was going to happen. It can be hard and even stressful to know things when my team, especially close co-workers, didn’t know their roles would change or be eliminated.
I’ve seen various takes on this — managers who share select information with their peers and direct reports, managers who share nothing until everything is official and it’s announcement time, and managers who feel they are beholden to share information asap especially if it impacts others careers. These approaches all have pros and cons.
The question I ask myself is, “How transparent AND helpful can I be?” The truth is that not all information is helpful. There’s the whole “You can’t handle the truth” movie line, but I’m not that dramatic about it. People can handle a lot of truth, but some truth can be more damaging than helpful. For example, if leadership is still discussing and changing the plan, is some half-baked narrative going to help anyone? Or just cause more churn and rumor?
But my team members have always enjoyed my honesty and straight shooting. So how do I balance these things? I find the most honest thing I can that is helpful to say. One day I found myself telling my managers that obviously there were org discussions going on, and while I couldn’t provide any details, that I would attempt to answer their questions as honestly and helpfully as I could. While getting a laugh, it also showed people that I respected them and was trying my best.
#4: Don’t give up.
What my team never needed to see was my pain behind-the-scenes. At various times, turbulence at work affects me emotionally and physically. Eating, sleeping, my own anger and apathy — they all matter to me, but it shouldn’t have to matter to them. I process that in private with people close to me. I take time for myself, spend time with my family, revisit hobbies, and often indulge in retail therapy.
Enduring is part of being a leader. And your learnings come from what you learn by staying and helping others. It will be natural to want to check out during tough change — to move on to a new role for your career or health, and that may be the right thing to do. But endure and stay as long as it’s right, so you can help others through these changes. And if you have nothing left to give, be honest with yourself and move on with your integrity intact. But never give up as a leader. Never sink to rumor mongering or insulting leadership above you. Regardless of how big the storm, you were hired to lead.
Most importantly, be patient — even when you are criticized for however you handle this all, even when more changes come that you couldn’t control. There are no normal rules here. There is no way to win. A tornado does not give out prizes. You just survive.
Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.