Change doesn’t end. It twists, turns, morphs and gets layered with other change. This creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty for employees. It makes leading through this time very difficult.

Neurologically, Humans have a difficult time with change. We are programmed for repetition. If you make it through a day without incident, your brain wants you to repeat the same behaviors the next day. Fear of change is real. Just like our ancestors scanned the environment to make sure they weren’t about to be attacked by animals, we continually scan the environment for threats. When our brain perceives threats, it releases cortisol and triggers our fight-or-flight response.

While today’s world may not often present the threat of an animal attack, our brain reacts in the same way to many perceived threats throughout the workday. Our brains perceive danger through leadership changes, job changes, layoffs, or even looming deadlines.

Innocuous things sometimes trigger fear. I once coached a leader to brush his hair before leaving his office. He had a habit of running his fingers through his hair, causing it to stand up. When employees saw him, they thought he was under stress and was withholding information. In reality, he just needed to brush his hair.

When employees perceive threats, they often begin to ruminate and lose their ability to focus . Their minds swirl, cortisol rises and stress increases. The brain struggles to think clearly and the ability to perform is reduced.

Think of the stressed-out brain as a plate of spaghetti. The noodles are a tangled mess. One twists around another. You can’t easily identify where one begins and another ends. They are jumbled, disorderly and difficult to shape.

As a leader, trying to guide employees in these times is difficult. When employees don’t have answers to questions, they make up their own. Their thinking can become as jumbled as a plate of spaghetti noodles. It is difficult for a leader to help them focus.

The goal as a leader is to focus employees on what is known and ignore the unknown. In other words, create waffles. A waffle has many squares, is orderly and compartmentalized. You can focus on one square at a time. You know the other squares are there but you don’t have to pay attention to them. When a leader helps an employee make waffles, the leader is helping shape the employee’s thinking and focus on what is known or in control.

As I coach executives, I give these two visuals. Make waffles, not spaghetti. When employees stress about change, they resemble spaghetti. Leaders need to help them be waffles. Leaders should be transparent about what is known and what is still yet to be resolved. The leader can then guide the employee to focus on the known and what they can control and ignore the unknown and what is outside of their control. As change continues to happen, the leader keeps re-focusing employees and making waffles.

Change is accepted at an individual level with reflection and intention. Leaders need to pay attention to the spaghetti moments. By noticing when and how these moments happen, they can focus on making waffles and shift employees’ focus to things within their control.

What can you do to help your employees make waffles?

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