Stop Trying to ‘Manage’ Change!

петух-живность-лидер-1375196Have you ever been asked in an interview, “How would you implement a change initiative?” It’s as if implementing a new program or changing a policy can be executed by following a recipe. I’m willing to bet that if you view each change initiative as an independent event with a series of steps, chances are your implementation efforts have been met with fear and resistance, if not outright mutiny. The problem is a matter of perspective. Organizational resiliency and the degree to which change initiatives are embraced are driven not by the effectiveness of the ‘roll-out strategy’ but by the underlying relationship that the company and its management has with their workforce.

“Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better.”
— King Whitney Jr.

Having a roll-out strategy that starts and stops with each change initiative is counterproductive to the organizational climate. It’s like a series of one night stands instead of a longstanding relationship built on an investment of commitment and trust. Adaptability, resiliency, and trust must be fostered over time. This is why the competence of leadership at all levels is so critical. Developing an organizational culture of alignment, where employees’ values, perspectives, and priorities are ‘aligned’ with the overall strategic direction of the company or team, helps mitigate the shock of any individual change initiative.

Employees within a culturally aligned organization may not agree with every directive or initiative, but they are more likely to trust their leaders and subsequently accept or even embrace decisions that are made, even those that are unpopular. Change is viewed more as an evolutionary process than a series of periodic singular events. When new initiatives are brought forward, team members feel more engaged in the evolutionary process and have a greater comfort level toward any potential impact. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by fear and trepidation at something new, they maintain a rational perspective focused on the immediate opportunities and longer term benefits.

Teams with a strong culture of alignment are far less resistant to change because the idea of change itself is less threatening. Let’s face it, most people dislike being forced to change. There is some level of comfort even in the consistency of misery. Teams that operate within a culture of alignment may never enthusiastically embrace the idea of change, but will accept it as a necessary business reality. These team members trust their leaders and their values are fundamentally aligned with the general vision and mission of the organization.

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!”
— Peter Senge

Developing a culture of alignment in any organization or team requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science. Realize, however, that any attempt to alter the culture must be carefully planned and executed. Managers too often function as information conduits. They orchestrate and delegate, hopefully participate, but when new directives are introduced, they simply call a meeting and make an announcement. Cultural transformation requires a little more time and thought than that!

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Don’t Let The Need For Affirmation Undermine Your Company’s Vision

1958550_296566357161058_1493398203_nUsually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective. But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.

Visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives as well. They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire those around them. People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic. Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?

That’s not to say that visionary leaders operate in a vacuum. They cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist. The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed. They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible. But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the obstacles, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.

Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek. Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors. In this context, ‘challenge’ means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback. It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.” In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide to pursue a course of action that none of them actually wants, however no one speaks up against it for fear of being the squeaky dissenting wheel. They each incorrectly assume everyone else wants to go along.

Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged. How often do we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want affirmation? That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much. It’s like telling the emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked. And guess what often happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the affirmation we were looking for? That’s right, the emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.

I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than challenges, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback. Visionary leaders check their ego at the door and rely on those they trust to be honest and provide candid information and insight. Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow. Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated. And that’s the whole idea.

“I don’t want any “yes-men” around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.” ~Samuel Goldwyn