Developing a Change Leader Mindset
You know, I’ve occasionally caught myself saying ‘change is hard.’ I’ve recently seen an interesting new insight into the power of language during change or transformation. In an article on HBR.org, Nick Tasler discusses the negative bias we create when reinforcing that change is hard.
For decades, we’ve heard statistics about how infrequently change initiatives and transformation are successful. We hear that 70% of them fail. We hear that 50% of mergers don’t achieve their desired results. In addition, we’ve all had our own experiences with changes that have had varying degrees of success. The message this reinforces is that change must be really hard.
What Tasler argues is that part of the reason change is often not successful is that by saying it is ‘hard’ we are creating a negative bias that impacts the actual outcomes. He recommends that rather than focusing on the difficulty of change we should focus our messaging and conversations about the effort involved in change.
Let me give you an example. We all know that part of success in any endeavor comes from the effort you put in to it. Some pursuits are more difficult and require more effort than others. Completing a marathon takes more effort than jogging around the block (although for some of us, they both seem daunting). However, we usually believe something is achievable when we focus on putting in some effort rather than simply focusing on how difficult it is.
At NextBridge, we focus on helping our clients successfully change and transform. We help clients think about the effort needed for successful change and help them achieve it. I encourage you to think about change that is impacting you. Are you focusing on the difficulty or the effort?
When it’s the wrong type of loyalty.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of building trust in leading change efforts. Change creates discomfort and disruption to the way people do things and how they interact with others – sometimes in profound ways. In short, it puts a strain on relationships, and therefore, on loyalty. And what does a leader under pressure to manage a significant change often do, almost reflexively? They try to leverage the loyalty of others.
There’s good news and bad news in this. Here’s the good news. The right kind of loyalty provides a solid foundation for the trust and leadership people are looking for from others during challenging situations. It makes it easier for a leader to convey the value of the change and enlist others in making it happen.
The bad news? It’s all too easy to misunderstand the nature of loyalty or to disregard the consequences of “fake loyalty.” You risk building a house of cards that falls apart under the high stakes and duress that change often brings.
You want to build the kind of solid relationships that allow you and your management team to build long-term change agility into your organization’s DNA. You want to avoid:
- Blind loyalty. This is based on the premise that an idea or argument is right simply because it comes from someone who is in a position of leadership or iinfluence. But great ideas come from robust conversation and differing perspectives. Blind loyalty doesn’t question. And blind loyalists simply execute the plan. Don’t count on them to take a lot of initiative to uncover or find solutions to problems that inevitably pop up.
- Forced loyalty. If someone is demanding loyalty, it is given out of compliance and fear. Forced loyalty may look like engagement to an outsider but it’s not. Underneath the surface is resentment and anxiety.
- Favor-seeking loyalty. This individual laughs at even your worst jokes and is often way too eager to support your ideas – even the ones you’re not too sure of yourself. It isn’t about the team or the larger vision. It’s about being rewarded for being a favorite. This type of loyalty is toxic to the team. People recognize what’s happening. It often creates distrust, jealousy and behaviors that undermine rather than elevate.
- Conflict-avoidant loyalty. Some people go along to get along. They always do what’s asked (i.e., they’re loyal) because even modest amounts of conflict make them very uncomfortable.
When you are a leader implementing change, ask yourself: how do I create buy-in and enhance loyalty? Have you and the organization helped people move through the change curve or have you tried to go from awareness to commitment in one giant step? We work with leaders every day to create loyalty and move people through the change curve. Read about one of our client’s results.
Over the past several years, this saying and many others about change have become trite. “Change is everywhere and to be successful you must embrace it.” “Change is the new normal.” “Champions eat change for breakfast.” You’ve heard it all before.
What is somewhat new about change is the sheer pace of it. With the advent of breakneck technology advances, change is not only constant but accelerating. Every few months a new social media outlet comes along that can help you reach your customers while you’re still trying to figure out Twitter. In other cases, some businesses are wondering if they should create an app for their services. Messages travel throughout your company, not to mention the world, in nanoseconds. Besides keeping up with all the technology, there are still the normal business changes like new product introductions, reorganizations, and new workflows. What do you have to know and how should you take a leadership position around change in today’s workplace?
- Answer the big question, “Why?”: People yearn for context. They want to understand why things happen and how they fit into that equation. As things move ever more quickly, we often forget to answer this simple question of why (is this important, is this necessary, does this impact my business, etc.) in our haste to just get things done.
- Listen to the reactions. Sometimes we think that in order to lead change, we need to be the cheerleader, playing down the realities that change is hard and there will be bumps along the way. We become better leaders when we take the time to listen and to respond in a realistic way to the reactions people have to what’s going on around them, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some situations it’s okay to say, “Yes, this stinks and at times it is going to be difficult. When we get through this, here is how we will be in a better place…” In other situations it’s okay to say, “No, that isn’t as good an option as it looks on the surface, and here’s why…”
- Understand that some people will be more ready to change than you. When it comes to introducing technological change, there are people in your organization who will be asking why the company isn’t moving more quickly, or they may not ask, but their actions show they want to move faster. We have a whole generation who have grown up with Instant Messaging (IM), texting, Facebook, and other forms of social media. They’re comfortable with the fast pace of change technology has taught them. Harness their enthusiasm to learn all they can about the benefits and the drawbacks of various technologies. Engage them in understanding how a change could be used in your business or, just as importantly, why your business isn’t ready for whatever the change is.
- Be a storyteller. Think back to your childhood. I could mention something about a story you haven’t heard in thirty years and you could probably tell most, if not all, of the story to me. If I asked you to explain freshman algebra concepts to me, that would probably be more of a challenge (at least it would be for me). We are wired to remember stories. They help us relate to concepts and ideas by putting ourselves in situations and thus remember information better. Tell your people stories about the successes of previous changes where first there were doubts. Tell stories about how a team worked together to make something happen. Tell stories that help people paint a picture, create a vision, and understand how to move forward to accomplish change.
- Use social media. More and more organizations are using social media as way for people within the company to communicate with each other. Use social media yourself to ask questions, share updates, talk about successes, and ask for ideas. Encourage your team to use it as a way to have a productive conversation about the changes that are occurring . Soon you’ll see leaders emerge on your team, taking the reins of championing change. Again, if you need help in this area, there are people in your organization who are social media savvy.
Trying to promote change and innovation? Keep the end in mind with a robust, vivid, compelling vision that you keep front and center. It can unleash innovation and be a touchstone, barometer and guide for what and how things get done.
When you have a robust vision of the future, it opens up possibilities. Rather than closing down options, it can allow for change and innovation. With a robust and compelling vision, the focus becomes on achieving the vision — on moving forward — not just making the here and now more efficient or productive or less risky. It allows people to engage in creative thinking about how to get to that vision because ultimately there can be a wide variety of ways to achieve it. Without a vision:
- people and organizations become overly focused on what and how things are done now
- change represents uncertainty and as humans, we hate uncertainty
- there is no gauge to measure a new idea, which makes the idea that much harder to justify pursuing
The vision provides a road map for how something new or different is, indeed, not leading us into uncertainty but closer to the ultimate destination.
And it’s important that the vision not just be a statement that hangs on the wall. It needs to serve as a tool to guide conversations, to help make decisions, to determine how resources are allocated and to promote debate.
How are your vision helping promote change and innovation?
Is change breaking down your silos or creating more? Here’s what we know about change.
- Change creates feelings of uncertainty.
- When we are uncertain, we don’t believe we have the answers, so we look for them elsewhere.
- When looking elsewhere, we look to those sources and people we know and trust.
- At work, that includes peers and leaders.
- The peers and leaders we know best are those we work with most closely.
If this is the impact of uncertainty, what psychological incentive do you have to reach out of your comfort zone and breakdown the silos? How do you encourage collaboration?
- Create forums to meet people in the other silo(s). Earlier in my career, the bank I was working for acquired a competitor. We were going to combine teams, bringing together two silos. After the acquisition was finalized, we held a daylong meeting with the sole purpose of understanding what each member of the new team did and our approaches to our work. After the meeting, we each had a far better understanding of who each person was and how we each worked. There was less uncertainty.
- Find the common areas of uncertainty. Talk about the elephant in the room. The meeting I mentioned above reduced some areas of uncertainty and, honestly, created others. What are we all unsure or unclear about? During change we can feel that we want to be perceived as highly competent and in the know. Admitting we are uncertain about something requires vulnerability but it opens the door for real understanding. Knowing others are going through the same experiences of uncertainty, especially because it feels negative, can create a sense of camaraderie.
- Find or create the answers together. Change can feel like it is happening to us and we have little control. The reality is that we have significant control over how change is executed and how we interact with it. If you don’t know something important, determine how you will find out. Often, the way you’ll find or create the answers is by bringing others in, not shutting them out
Those of us that are of a certain age probably remember the ad ‘this is your brain on drugs’ with the egg sizzling in a frying pan. A very effective visual. You can argue whether it was an effective campaign.
There is a visual I’ve been using recently to help explain the neuroscience of change. Jonathan Haidt originally talked about it in The Happiness Hypothesis and it was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.
Picture a rider and an elephant going down a path. The rider is the rational, thinking part of your brain. The elephant is the emotional part of your brain. The emotional brain is far older evolutionarily than the thinking brain. It is so old that some people refer to it as the reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that responds to the environment. When danger is perceived, it triggers the flight or fight response. It is here that you determine whether you will take on the ‘danger’ or flee from it.
Under normal circumstances, it is surprisingly easy for the rider to control the elephant. The rider can guide the elephant down the path and make it comply to his or her wishes. Now introduce change. The brain perceives change as a potential danger. Why? Because it is uncertain, something we can’t predict, something that we have less control of than our current situation. And, with this potential danger, the emotional brain takes over. Think of an emotional elephant. One trying to decide whether to fight or flee what it has encountered on the path. How easy is it for the rider to control that elephant? The rider needs to put the rational aside and work with the emotion.
So, when you’re leading change, you need to make sure you are communicating to both the rider and the elephant. The rider needs to talk about what is happening, what the timeframe is, how it will be implemented, etc. The elephant needs to talk about the fact that change can be difficult and scary, it needs to have its emotions recognized, it needs to have an opportunity to vent its concerns and to replace the negative emotions with positive ones that allow it to move forward. Once the emotions are part of the conversation, the rider and elephant can begin working together again.
- You tell people why. Even if the current state of affairs isn’t great, it’s the one that feels comfortable. People need to be given a reason why to change. What the change is and how it will happen is good, helping me understand why is great.
- You ask for help. Sometimes we think of a change leader as the person charging up the hill on the white horse and making things happen. They are the ones charging up the hill. However, he or she can’t be doing it alone. Great change leaders know you can’t do it alone and they ask for the help of others.
- You plan well but you expect the change to change. You know that getting from here to there won’t necessarily go as planned, so you plan for unexpected twists and turns in the journey.
- You communicate as transparently as possible and listen constantly. Great change leaders don’t just stand in front of large groups of people and give speeches. You listen to what other people have to say. You continually talk to people in a variety of settings and ways and make sure there are ways for people to respond, share ideas, find the blind spots, highlight the successes and discuss the failures. You don’t just share information, you share a part of yourself. You balance being strong with being vulnerable.
- You love the journey. The great change leaders I’ve known really love the challenge of change. You love creating something new and better. You love getting people excited about the future and helping them believe that future can happen. You understand how difficult change can be but set high expectations because you believe it can and will happen. You love being able to look back and say, “We started over there and are now over here. Great work.”
What do you think it takes to be a great change leader?
One of the issues I often hear from client during times of change is ‘how can I implement change when I can’t even keep up with what I’m doing now?’ People often feel like they have to change the tire and steer the the bus while it’s going 60 mph. Change is like that. The world and your business don’t stop so that you can transform the culture, the strategy or the organization.
However, there are some things that can help you slow the bus down while you’re changing the tire.
- Separate the urgent from the important. There is always something that needs our ‘urgent’ attention at work. The key is to decide if it’s urgent and important or urgent, but in the end, not really very important. If it’s the latter, let it go, especially if it doesn’t help with the transformation. If it’s urgent and important to the transformation, give it your full attention.
- Remember that change is a process. When faced with transformation, we can get trapped into thinking it all has to happen now. Change takes time. Transformation doesn’t happen quickly. Create short-term milestones and work to achieve those milestones.
- Enlist others. Involving others in the change effort has enormous benefit. It speeds up the buy in. It develops others abilities and capacity to change. And, it distributes the work. Some of you steer, some of you change the tire, some of you take care of the passengers on the bus to make sure it isn’t too much of a bumpy ride.
About Edith Onderick-Harvey
Edith Onderick-Harvey is a highly regarded consultant, leadership and talent expert, and speaker. Edith is frequently quoted in the media including The New York Times, CNN.com, HR Executive, and American Executive. As the President of Factor In Talent, Edith works with leaders to take performance — their own, their team’s and their organization’s — to the next level.
NextBridge partners with you to create and execute pragmatic, sustainable business solutions focused on building your organization and culture, developing talent and navigating change.
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