What I’ve learned about leadership and change

During my career, I have led teams through many change processes. Sometimes it has been smaller things, like adopting a new e-mail marketing system. Sometimes it has been complete upheaval, like an organizational restructuring or financial turnaround.

Be it smaller or greater, change is always difficult to some extent. And a leader’s choices and actions can make it easier or more difficult for people. Here are some key lessons that I have learnt as a leader:

1. Respect the power of emotions

Change evokes a lot of emotions. Some people feel exhilarated, while others may be confused, anxious or angry. If emotions are ignored, successful change is very, very difficult to achieve.

In their excellent book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath compare people’s rational thinking to a rider and emotions to an elephant. Although the rider seems like they are in control, if the elephant decides to go on a rampage, there is very little the rider can do.

Emotions are messy and difficult to control. But they are also a powerful driver, and can be a powerful ally. Really good leaders harness the power of emotions to encourage commitment and to make the change smoother and easier.

2. You can never have too much dialogue

When change is in the air, people will talk. Because for humans, talking is a way of dealing with emotions and a way of making sense of things. 

Talking with people will initially mean that you will be the recipient of worried and even aggressive questions, accusations and doubts. It can be very draining. Sometimes you will not have all the answers.

But I promise you, if you tough it out and have lots of conversations with your team members, show them that you care, help them make sense of the situation and help them deal with their emotions, they will be more ready to move ahead and get to work.

3. Focus on the level of daily work

A common mistake for top management in situations of change is to focus on the strategic level in their communication. What people most want to know is, how will the change affect their daily work. They will feel less confused and more secure, when they get a chance to discuss the practical implications relevant to their role.

I have heard many managers say that it is important to communicate exactly the same information to everyone in the organization. This is both true and untrue. It is important to make an effort to build a shared understanding of the strategic reasoning and organization-level goals. 

But it is equally important to have role and team and business area specific discussions. It is a manager’s duty to explain the change to their team and help them understand their role in implementing the change successfully. Otherwise, how are people supposed to do their part?

4. People will accept change more readily if they can participate in planning it

I am not a big fan of the phrase “implementing strategy”. Why? Because it implies an old-fashioned top-down model of leadership in which strategy is first planned by top management and then implemented.

While management may have a fuller picture of how markets are shaping up and how the organization should be developed, the employees are the ones that will make the change happen. And if they are reluctant, confused, or disagree with the strategic choices, there is little chance for success.

What’s more, employees have a great deal of practical wisdom about operations, customers, efficiency and so on. It makes sense to harness this wisdom early on. The plan will most likely be better and, more importantly, employees will already be committed to it.

5. If the management is confused or in disagreement, everyone will be

In order to lead change successfully, management must be aligned. Any disagreements or confusion at top level will multiply across the organization. So, even though top management should focus on the strategic level, they still need to agree on the practicalities.

This, in fact, is another good reason for engaging employees early on. They will most likely have the best understanding of practical aspects that may prove difficult or cause friction between different parts of the organization.

In addition, top management must have processes in place to deal with friction swiftly and decisively, so that small disagreements do not grow into open conflict.

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As I said, change is always difficult to some extent. I find that it helps to make a conscious decision to focus my energies on helping my team get through it as best they can. This helps to prioritize my time, too. After all, when the going gets tough, that’s when people need their leader the most.

Personal change vs. climate change

There’s a lot of discussion about how people will need to change their behavior in order to stop climate change.

You know the drill – eat less meat, consume less, fly less, drive your car less. Pretty clear and simple stuff.

So, why aren’t people doing these things? 

It is to do with two things: 1) a lack of feeling of urgency, and 2) the scale of change required on a personal level.

Climate change happens gradually. Even though we increasingly see concrete effects, such as intense heat waves, it still feels somewhat distant on a personal level.

The problem is that when we get to a point where the changes are so negative that everyone begins to feel a sense of urgency, it will already be too late.

On the other hand, the things we know we can and should do in our personal lives can feel pretty big, and there are no immediate gratifying results.

For example, if your family’s daily life is built around driving a car, it can be a big adjustment to reduce driving or get rid of the car altogether. And even if you managed to do it, the climate would still continue to heat up. 

So, it is easy to rationalize that there is no point in putting yourself through all that trouble.

In their excellent book Switch – How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heath argue that in order to get people on board a change process, it helps to create small, easily achievable sub goals.

Now there’s some food for thought! When we cannot wait for a sense of climate urgency to kick in, how do we create simple, easy enough sub goals that will motivate people to act?

I’ll talk more about this in upcoming posts.

There’s no shortcut to change

For leaders and managers, change can be a bitch. People tend to be reluctant to change, and it is frustrating trying to get everyone on board.

Communicators are often bombarded by managers who want a simple and effective communication solution. Something to convince all stubborn naysayers to embrace change and all the possibilities it can bring.

Well, I have bad news for you: Such a solution does not exist.

Managing change is about managing people, and that requires a lot of dialogue. In a change process, a leader’s most important task is to help people make sense of things. Help them understand how the change will affect them personally. Alleviate their fears.

In order to do that, leaders first need to make sense of it all for themselves. That is not something that communications could do for them.

Becoming more sustainable entails all kinds of change. And because our brains are wired to be suspicious of change, many are suspicious about sustainability by association.

Like in any situation that requires change, there are no shortcuts to getting people to embrace sustainability. Unfortunately we will have to get there the hard way. With persistence, patience and a whole lot of dialogue.

In coming posts I will look more closely at why change is so difficult and how we can help people get past the difficulty. Stay tuned!