Lessons on Change from a Night at the Airport

It’s inevitable. It happens at virtually every airport, every day, across the world. Flights are delayed or canceled. Sometimes, it’s weather-related. At other times, maintenance issues, crew schedules, or other logistics are to blame.

No matter the cause, the response from the flying public is fun to watch as I did on a recent business trip. That night, stormy weather in the Atlanta area turned the world’s busiest airport into a case study on human behavior in a cauldron of unwanted change.

Here’s what I noticed. Some people remain calm, taking the disruption in stride as they change plans. Some get visibly nervous as they figure out what to do next. Others stress out and regress to lousy behavior that repels fellow travelers. Like the woman on my connecting flight who angrily shouted, “If you do that again, I’m going to take your head and shove it…” You get the picture.

During the mad scramble and flurry of activity that night, I observed four ways to help people navigate change. They’ll serve you just as well as you lead your people through organizational change.

Show Empathy

The flight attendants on my thrice-delayed flight greeted passengers with a smile and acknowledged frustrations about travel delays. Their empathy and friendliness lightened the mood as passengers settled in for the trip.

Recognize the emotional toll that change often brings. Acknowledge the disruption being caused and let your people know you understand—even if there’s not much you can do about it. It may get to a point when you have to say, “that’s the way it is,” but don’t start there.

Provide Clarity

At the airport that night, I saw agents at one counter provide frequent updates about flight delays, while agents at the next gate offered virtually no information. Guess which counter had the shortest passenger line and the least stress?

Anxiety breeds when there’s a lack of information. Provide your team with as much information as you can, even if you don’t have every detail or can’t share everything you do know. Give regular updates through proper channels to keep the grapevine from spreading misinformation.

Offer Choices

I stepped up to the counter to learn more about a delayed flight and was given the option to wait out the delay or change flights to one that would likely leave sooner. The passenger next to me didn’t get the same choice. I left the counter breathing a sigh of relief, while he walked away with even more stress than when he arrived in line. No one likes a “take it or leave it” response when a small amount of choice is possible.

Choice is a basic psychological need that drives behavior, good and bad. When people feel backed into a corner, a fight or flight response ensues. Most significant change initiatives are decided at an executive level. Improve your odds for successful change by seeking input from others in the organization. Offer your team choices on implementing the change initiative, even when the end goal is not their decision.

Demand Civility

The stress of change, especially if it’s uninvited, brings out the worst in many people—like the woman on my connecting flight. Set expectations for how your team members will treat each other, regardless of circumstances. Create rules of engagement to help the team “play better together in the sandbox,” as I like to say. Anticipate that you will step on one another’s toes at times and be prepared to apologize and forgive as needed.

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