Coaching your IT team for change: 9 tips


Getting your team to accept, and even embrace, change is vital for IT success. IT leaders who have mastered the art of leading through change share their advice on this essential leadership skill.

When a necessary change hits your IT team, getting everyone to buy in and adapt is key — and challenging. Some team members will, by nature, fight any change. Even those once adaptable may have become change resistant due to years of near-constant turbulence. One Gartner study found that willingness to support organizational change dropped from 74% of employees in 2016 to just 43% in 2022.

“You can have the best solution but if you don’t have adoption, it will fail,” says Wayne Tung, managing director of Sendero Consulting. “This is true of mergers, acquisitions, divestitures — any type of change.”

If your team pushes back, digs in, or fights whenever you present them with a change, it isn’t solely because they are a change-resistant crew, though. “There’s always change,” says Jim Moore, CTO at HR Acuity. “A healthy team is used to it. If you establish trust, people feel free to dissent, but they know a decision will get made and everybody needs to commit to it.”

Getting your team to accept, and even embrace, change is an essential leadership skill.

I spoke to IT leaders who have mastered the art of leading teams through change. The trick, they say, is to build a team that has the right mix of organizational trust, psychological safety, and freedom to resist.

Here are their tips on creating that cultural brew.

1. Give plenty of warning

Moore puts people into several buckets, ranging from those who willingly embrace any change to those who fight all of it. Even change-seekers, he says, don’t respond well if you throw a change at them without warning.

“It is important to communicate change early and often,” he says. “You have to say, ‘Here’s where we are today,’ and paint a picture of where you are going in the next quarter.”

Some changes — buyouts or leadership shifts, for example — don’t allow for much notice. But often, you know well in advance. Don’t wait for the last minute to get your team ready.

“Too many times we see clients put a new system in place and train users a day before it goes live,” says Sendero’s Tung. “You can imagine what happens: Lack of adoption; everyone pushes back. ‘Why are we doing this? It wasn’t broken! Why fix it?’”

Even if you feel you don’t have time, Shadi Rostami, senior executive vice president of engineering at Amplitude, recommends making the effort to find some, even if that means pushing your initiative back a little. “If I take a little bit more time, maybe talk with some influencers in the company, ask for people’s perspective, the change will be easier to make,” she says.

2. Make it clear why change is coming

“You need a clearly articulated ‘why,’” says Sharon Mandell, CIO of Juniper Networks. “Then you need to communicate, communicate, communicate. And if you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate some more.”

People will still push back, she says. There will always be people who say, “We’ve always done it this way and it works just fine.”

Moe Asgharnia, CIO at tax and accounting firm BPM, agrees. “When change is easy to push through, it’s usually because people understand the why,” he says. “It takes time, but you have to help people understand how it’s going to benefit the firm, the team, the individual, their career growth, and future plans.” Amplitude’s Rostami suggests that, rather than simply telling people what that ‘why’ is, help them find it on their own.

“I want people to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat,” she says. “At the end of the day, I make the final call.” But taking the time to walk people toward the conclusion you already arrived at helps people accept a change. They will feel that they had some control over it. “You might feel that this is less efficient,” she says. “If I announced the change in all-hands meeting, it might be quicker.” But that will lead to resistance and pushback, which won’t help the change succeed, she says.

3. Tie it to the mission

“Changes are most accepted if they are tied to mission and purpose,” says Jennifer Dulski, CEO and founder of software company Rising Team. “Every company has a vision, a mission, a set of values,” she says. If you tie the change to that, it won’t feel arbitrary or unnecessary. “Start by grounding it in your mission,” she says. “And be clear about how the benefits are tied to the mission.”

Paulo Gardini Miguel, director of technology at The CTO Club, agrees. “Begin by painting the big picture,” he says. “Explain the rationale behind the change and demonstrate how it aligns with the organization’s goals. Highlight the benefits of the change for the team, the company, and the customers.”

Whenever possible, leaders go deeper than the company’s stated mission, Dulski says. Work to find a message that speaks not only to your team’s mission, but also each person’s interpretation of the company mission, or at least each team members’ personal mission.

“Everybody has different motivators,” she says. “The more you understand what drives your employees, what matters to them, and what they care about, the more specific you can be. A ‘why’ for one person might be slightly different than a ‘why’ for someone else.”

4. Take the individual into account

The first question many team members will ask when presented with significant change is, ‘What does this mean for me?’ It helps to tailor your message to address that question, whenever possible, Dulski says. “They’re thinking about their own jobs and their own lives.”

Rajesh Jethwa, CTO at software solution provider Digiterre, believes you have to tailor the message not only to what the change means to each person but also to their skill level and willingness to accept change. This was presented by Max Landsberg in the Tao of Coaching.

People, he says, respond to change on a scale. “This is otherwise known as ‘skill and will,’” he says. “When you have high willingness, high ability, you might approach this more as mentoring,” he says. You might, for example, ask questions to help that person find their own fears about the change or the motivators that will help them embrace it. “You’re building up the skills within that person to respond to change, and making them more self-sufficient,” he says.

But for someone who has low will and a low skill level, you would take a different approach, he says. For example, you might simply tell them what to do. “There are members of the team who want to be led,” Jethwa says. “They require that you tell them what to do because it is all new to them.”

As they grow in the role, people tend to move along this scale. As they gain more skill, they often also acquire more will. As a leader, you have to keep track of where people are on this scale in order to respond effectively.

5. Get people involved

One way to circumvent resistance to change is to get people involved in the decision leading up to the change. “Emphasize collaboration by involving team members in the decision-making process whenever possible,” says CTO Club’s Miguel. “Foster a sense of ownership and increase their buy-in toward the change.”

Even if you know that a change is coming, and what that change is, solicit people’s opinions and advice. “If a change is major, like restructuring the organizational chart, sending out limited surveys that help define priorities can help shape the changes,” says BPM’s Asgharnia.  It’s critically important that your staff understand what is driving the change and that they are not only included in the process but are able to provide input and have a sense of ownership of it. “They need to understand why this is happening and know that their voice was heard and that they were included in the process,” he says.

“I try and build a culture where everything is hypothesis-driven and experimental,” says Digiterre’s Jethwa. “People then feel a sense of psychological safety — and there’s collaboration — so when there’s a change, they are less likely to be resistant.” They might question the change and expect to be heard. But they will accept it.

6. Listen to the resistance

This discourse is not only about soliciting commitment, Rising Team’s Dulski says.

“I sometimes call this ‘Box of Fears,’” she says. “We get it all out on the table and create a safe space for people to talk. Change is scary. Give them a space to ask the hard questions and talk about that. The healthiest teams have high psychological safety and can do that out in the open.”

Talking about their fears helps people to process them. Discussing that fear with the team makes that a safe place. That is how you build the trust you need to have a healthy, resilient team that is open to change.

Moore agrees. “Let’s clarify what we’re trying to accomplish. If the ‘why’ is not clear, feel free to ask questions. But I’m also very open to feedback,” he says. Sometimes, better ideas can surface amid these discussions.

“If somebody else in the room suggests an alternative path or alternative timeline tweaks, be humble enough to accept a better idea,” he says.

You hired smart people, after all. This might not be possible with every change. But if you listen to people when it is possible, they will be more willing to accept changes they can’t influence.

7. Celebrate the wins

It might seem like a small thing but simply admitting to yourself and your team that change can be hard and acknowledging when people are doing well can go a long way to boosting morale and making the process go smoothly.

“Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins throughout the process,” says Asgharnia. “Even if someone was completely resistant to a change  and is finally understanding it. It’s important to recognize that. Even if you do it only in a one-on-one.”

Taking this moment to celebrate this acceptance, too, can help reinforce that making the change was not a terrible thing. “It helps demonstrate the benefits,” he says. “Now they see it. They will likely reiterate it to the rest of staff.”

8. Get some training

“It’s important to get your senior leadership into training that’s specific to change management,” says Asgharnia. It is easy for a leader to create friction without realizing they are doing it. If someone doesn’t completely agree and they let that show when they discuss it with their team, that can cause ripples of problems through your organization. Or perhaps a leader doesn’t understand why all this communicating, discourse, and polite dissent is necessary and they push change without taking the time to do it. In this case, your teams won’t build the psychological safety they need to adapt.

“Even a small training session to help them realize that senior leadership is leading by example [is a good preventative measure],” he says. “All it takes is someone from your leadership team to express their disapproval to others or show some resistance or not be on board for that to become a larger issue as it trickles down to the rest of the team.”

9. Agree to disagree

There comes a time, in the process, when you have to stop debating, stop offering an ear to complaints, and move forward.

“Some people are never going to go along,” says HR Acuity’s Moore.

You have to be firm at some point, and tell them, ‘This is happening. We’ve talked about it. I’ve heard your feedback. Now, we need to disagree and commit. I understand that you’re resistant to it.’

After all, a certain amount of discussion is great, but at some point dissent becomes disruptive.

“There’s a line that we absolutely want you to step up to,” says Moore. “I don’t need people sitting back and not providing feedback. But there is a point beyond where it becomes negative.”

And leaders must address this negative behavior when it arises, Moore says.

“When you see that behavior, you need to pull that person aside and make sure they understand that there’s an encouraged amount of feedback, but this is happening and they need to get on board,” he says.

“Amazon formalizes this as one of their leadership principles,” Digiterre’s Jethwa points out. “It is called disagree and commit. You have room to disagree. There is discourse. But after the decision is made, you commit. That way, if you didn’t get your way, it’s fine. We’re all on the same ship. We’ve got to sail together.”

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