Pastor Charles Stone, who has studied how brain chemistry impacts our ability to process change, recommends six specific strategies to help congregational leaders embrace change. Getting leaders on board first is a critical step that avoids organizational disruption and ensures that the change will be a lasting one.
Wise leaders understand that lasting change requires that individuals change first before an organization will change. Your change won’t last or will disrupt your organization unless leaders personally embrace the change first. The logistics of change are certainly important. But it’s equally important to develop a specific plan to bring leaders along. These six strategies are key to making a change stick.
Leaders must constantly answer two key questions, especially during change: “Why are we making this change?” and “How do we do it?”
1. Help Leaders See Progress Already Made
The more motivated we feel, the more readily we embrace change. Communicating and celebrating small wins through the change process can help gain buy-in from others. Each win can give a boost of motivation to continue to move forward with the change.
2. Connect Personally
Genuineness and a warm, caring style can endear others to you and the change. Empathy, the ability to see through another’s eyes, is crucial to helping leaders embrace change. One way you can connect and build empathy is to share mistakes you’ve made through the change process. Mistake sharing can benefit others. Brain studies show that when we observe how a friend learned from a mistake, we learn from it just as if we ourselves made the same mistake. However, our leaders can’t learn from our mistakes if we never share them. So the more you share your mistakes with leaders (within reason), the more they will personally connect to you, learn from you, and follow you.
3. Repeat the “Why” and Delegate the “How”
Leaders must constantly answer two key questions, especially during change: “Why are we making this change?” and “How do we do it?” A shared why can help teams avoid silos and increase personal productivity. Leaders should prioritize vision clarity as one of their top two roles, along with leadership development. When you share a clear why and allow others to create the how, you’ll foster an atmosphere of personal freedom and autonomy, a key component for high-performing teams.
Delegating the how also encourages teams to create their own solutions. And when they solve problems with their own insights, their brains change so that they remember and own those solutions better. When you give leaders the freedom to implement the why by letting them determine the how, you foster high-performing teams.
4. Acknowledge that Change is Scary
When you talk about the progress you’re making, continue to verbalize that you understand how difficult and scary change can be. Be sure that you don’t speak in a patronizing way that implies that it’s difficult for others and not for you. Let them know that it’s scary for you as well, another way to build empathy. Help people realize that it’s normal to feel unsettled during change and that it will pass.
5. Tell Stories of People Navigating Change Well
Narrative persuasion is a technique that uses indirect communication through story and example. Often we try to persuade others with a direct approach that communicates just the facts like, “We are going to make a change, and here are the reasons why.” The direct approach often is not effective. Neuroscientists have confirmed common sense that storytelling has a powerful effect on behavior. Storytelling helps others “see” through the eyes of another. When people can see successful responses to change through stories of others, it will help them navigate the change better.
6. Stay Reasonably Connected to Your Biggest Resisters
Change will bring detractors to the surface, as the Bible often shows. When Moses sent Joshua and the spies to scout out the promised land, even though they returned with glowing reports about the opportunity before them, many people resisted the change by spreading a bad report. Stay connected to your detractors, but don’t become their punching bag. If you stay calmly connected to them, you can help calm their emotionality and mitigate their opposition. Cutting them off will simply intensify their opposition.
This material is adapted from Charles Stone’s book Brain Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2015). It is used by permission of the author and publisher. The book is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.
- Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Essential Acts of Leadership by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Moving Established Congregations through Change by Tom Berlin