Change comes with its own psychological baggage. People experiencing change are being asked to let go of what has felt comfortable and come to terms with (if not embrace) something completely new.
It is not always easy, and the uncertainties of change can bring out some not-so-pleasant responses, ranging from negativity and skepticism, to avoidance, competition, and even aggression.
These are the stinky fish. And if you ignore them, the stench will only get worse.
To fully succeed with the change, organizations need to put their stinky fish on the table – in other words, acknowledge them and give them a little air. This helps leadership teams uncover anything that might get in the way of progress later, making sure change efforts are more effective from the start.
Here’s how to air your stinky fish
If you are leading change in your organization and want to give a little air to your stinky fish so you can address them and move forward – here’s a simple little exercise you can facilitate during your next team change management workshop:
- Tee up the exercise, explaining to participants that it’s a safe space for them to share their candid reactions as you and the team discuss the change underway.
- Hand out sticky notes and ask everyone to write down their stinky fish throughout the meeting/workshop – one per note. (If you’re feeling creative, there are fish-shaped notes available.) These are the fears and anxieties they might be experiencing around the change – or about the organization in general.
- Collect the first and put them on “the table” – better known as a white board or flip chart – for everyone to see all the fish postings. Work together to sort them into categories.
- Assign a category to each group to explore root causes and suggest ways to address them.
- Bring the group back together for a full discussion to help move toward resolution and clear the stinky fish.
Airing out the stinky fish in a group setting helps normalize the anxieties, team dynamics or other issues that may be holding the team back – or may have been overlooked in the past. A group discussion can provide psychological safety by removing the stigma and the stress around change. It can also be a constructive way to both solve some of the issues that arise…and empower participants to be part of the solution.
Notion has conducted this exercise with leaders on multiple occasions. Sure, there’s some reluctance at first, but the discussion inevitably becomes very productive, very satisfying, and very memorable for all involved.