In the previous post, we explored the value of taking a more intentional approach towards change by utilising change management practices. While successful change is far more likely when it is planned, organised and directed, none of those efforts will bear fruit unless there is leaders lead the change. The challenge of leading change is neither easy or new. As Niccolo Machiavelli so astutely observed almost half a millennia ago;
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.
In her article for Forbes magazine ‘Leaders: How to get people on board with change’, Margie Warrell outlines ways in which skillful leaders can support and encourage their employees to adopt and adapt to change:
- The first step is to lead from “Why”. Few things are more infuriating and demoralising than the thought that the effort we are putting in is pointless. For this reason, it is crucial that the reasoning behind the change is clearly explained to all. What’s more, telling people once may not be sufficient, so it’s important to reconnect with the ‘Why’ as soon as motivation begins to ebb. Leaders; make yourself visible and be sure you are regularly communicating.
- Emotions are contagious, so approaching change with an upbeat and optimistic energy invigorates others and alleviates anxiety about what will come. As a leader, you are the person that staff will look up to during times of uncertainty.
- Leaders need to create a psychological safety net that breeds confidence in those around them. For this reason, it is important not to gloss over the anxieties of your staff, both spoken and silent. Instead, acknowledge it. Great leaders acknowledge concerns and the discomfort of being in unfamiliar territory while simultaneously keeping people focused on what is within their control.
- Leaders should encourage smart risk-taking within their organisations and help counter ‘loss aversion bias’ by getting staff to rethink the risks and focus on the opportunities. Warrel suggests that this is best achieved by asking yourself the following three questions: What’s the worst that could happen? What would I do if the worst did happen? What can happen if I do nothing?
- Change is the only constant, so you better learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You can prepare your team for change exposing them to situations that are out of their comfort zone. The more often people are exposed to such conditions, the more confident they become in their capacity to adapt.
- Peer group pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By appointing ‘Change Ambassadors’ from within the ranks of the workforce, people are more likely to see it as a bottom-up revolution rather than a command from management.
- It is important to reward courageous behaviour, not just results. The type of reward doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the person receiving it. When you reward people for being proactive, not just successful, you reinforce a ‘risk ready mindset’ that sets everyone up to find better ways of doing business.
- Lastly, leaders who dare to lay their own reputation, security and safety on the line for the benefit of the company will garner respect from others. Your willingness to take a risk and be decisive, despite the uncertainty, will have a much more significant impact on your team and organisation than any other factor.
We can’t leave this topic, without at least talking about ‘Growth vs Fixed’ Mindset. Carol Dweck is the Yale/Harvard/Stanford researcher (Yes, she really is that impressive) who developed the concept. It’s gained traction in education, but it’s lessons are not limited to children. In essence, Dweck’s research categorises people into two groups; those who think their abilities are inflexible and permanent, and those who think that they can learn and adapt. As you can probably guess, those in the former camp who think “this is how I am” find change a struggle and generally come out worse off in life. Those, on the other hand, who say to themselves “I don’t know it, but I can learn”, have richer lives – both inner and outer.
This mental adaptability is confirmed by neuroscience as well. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience. With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. This means that we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take, such as using sound strategies, asking questions, practising, and following proper nutrition and sleep habits.
Positive Psychology is a relatively new field, but its findings are already making their way into change management. Encouragement and support are vital aspects, and so too is building capability amongst employees. For change to be embraced, it is crucial to develop the internal capabilities of staff (resilience training is a great place to start). Give your people the ability and confidence to create, anticipate and respond to changes in an efficient and effective way. According to Julia Hodges, building capabilities helps to motivate people to make the behavioural shifts that are necessary to achieve objectives and successfully implement and sustain change. This is where a great learning and development team is worth its weight in gold.
It is important to point out that while change management does mitigate risks, it can still fail if it is not implemented in a responsible and inclusive way. The most important factors that need to be taken into account are communication and leading by example. Employees are going to be anxious about what this change means for their job security, so it is essential to be honest with everyone involved about what will happen in the future, how they should respond to it, and what it means for the company and for them. Following that, it is important to minimise the stresses that the employees might face when implementing new strategies and attitudes. Mindset building not only makes people more flexible and adaptable, it often has the added benefit of revealing skills in people that they did not know they possessed in the first place.
Lastly, it’s crucial to recognise that many different strategies can be used to get people on board with change, but ultimately, each organisation has different needs, and it is important to assess each specific case to ensure that your intended changes are successful and enduring.
Stefan P. Cantore and David L. Cooperrider, in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Leadership, Change, and Organizational Development, ed. H. Skipton Leonard, Rachel Lewis, Arthur M. Freedman, and Jonathan Passmore
Julie Hodges , (2017),”Building capabilities for change: the crucial role of resilience “, Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, Vol. 31 Iss 1 pp. 5 – 8