Leadership and management of organisational change is one of the most significant challenges facing managers and professionals today
Professional reputations can be built on doing it well and seriously undermined when results are disappointing and costly. The stakes are high – for individuals and for the organisation.
The evidence from change efforts large and small provides little in the way of reassurance for professionals seeking a blueprint for success. Mergers fail more often than they succeed, acquisitions prove more costly than anticipated and downsizing or restructuring often results in poorer than expected results and lowered staff morale. Managers are left scratching their heads about what to do next and facing questions about who or what to blame for disheartening results.
People hold the keys to optimal outcomes from change efforts. How you think about, communicate with and show concern for people are key determinants of organisational change outcomes. Yet understanding and addressing people’s needs is often way down managers’ lists of priorities when they think about managing change.
The prospect of leading or managing change can be anxiety-provoking and stressinducing for experienced and newly-appointed managers alike. The problem is further compounded for managers with day-to-day operational responsibilities which seem all consuming. Where should managers focus their energies so that the results of change efforts meet or exceed expectations without compromising current performance?
Although there is no ‘one size fits all’ recipe for success, the following sections identify people related aspects of leading and managing change where the stakes are high, and provide guidance for professionals keen to build a solid reputation for effective leadership and management of change. Each section concludes with self-test questions to help you think about areas for personal professional development.
Understanding the drivers of change
People respond optimally to change initiatives when they understand the driving reasons behind then and have opportunities to participate in determining the organisation’s response. All too often however, change initiatives are presented as fait accompli alterations to structure and therefore to people’s roles and responsibilities and to their reporting lines and connections with others at work without an accompanying explanation about why such changes are taking place.
The factors which ultimately drive organisational change lie predominantly in the external environment – competitive threats, economic forecasts, technological change, consumer sentiments and social needs are all factors that indicate the need for organisations to change what they do and how they do it. Effective leaders and managers of change invest time and effort in getting to grips with the political, economic, technological and social drivers of organisational change. They also make sure they keep up-to-date with on-going changes. They use this understanding to help staff understand the rationale behind planned change.
A newly-appointed program manager in an aged care setting was alert to the complex array of established government policy and legislation which shaped the sector as a whole and therefore had a significant bearing on the services for which she was accountable. She familiarised herself with the relevant policy and legislative framework by reading widely and by participating in professional forums and conferences. When it came time to lead her team’s response to a new policy direction, she was able to do so confident in her understanding of the context for change and well placed to support her staff to understand the implications for them.
Occasionally the need for change arises from within the organisation. For example, the untimely death of a CEO occurred in an organisation where succession planning had not been given adequate attention. Rather than appoint an interim CEO from outside the organisation, the Chair facilitated a conversation between members of the senior management team to implement an immediate interim structure. Most contemporary organisations claim commitment to the principles of ‘knowledge work’ and aim to be a ‘learning organisation’. Awareness of the forces driving change helps build understanding at all levels of the need for change and engenders commitment to change compared with situations where staff feel that change has been imposed without rational reasons.
What are the key drivers of change for your organisation? And your department?
What are you doing to keep up to date?
Involving people in planning for change
When the pressure is on for managers to come up with answers quickly they can easily fall into the trap of planning for change and making related business decisions without consulting with and involving the people who will be affected by those decisions. This approach is often driven by assumptions that, by involving people, you will encounter resistance to change and that resistance is best left as something to ‘overcome’ later.
One major risk in this approach is that when decisions are made without access to firsthand knowledge and experience about the issues at hand the quality of decision-making can be seriously compromised. Managers taking this approach risk alienating staff and undermining overall change efforts.
Before participating in a scenario planning process involving the CEO and senior management team, one of the managers, consulted with her team, inviting them to draw on their knowledge and experience to envision a strategic direction for the department. Without making any promises to her team about how much of their strategic thinking efforts would ultimately be adopted by the organisation, she took the results of their efforts into the high level scenario planning. Further down the track, when strategic direction for the organisation as a whole had been determined, she found her team enthusiastic about further involvement, this time to translate the high level plans to which they had contributed into operational plans for the year ahead and a revised set of roles and responsibilities for team members.
When managers find ways of involving staff in the thinking needed for informed decision-making about organisational change, they do justice to the wealth of talent within their staff group and significantly reduce the risks associated with staff feeling disempowered and disengaged.
How do you respond when your manager involves you in change? What’s your approach to involving your direct reports and others in planning for change?
Dealing with resistance to change
Resistance to change is a normal human response. This is as true in the workplace as it is in our lives outside of work. If you are in any doubt try changing just one entrenched personal habit for a day!
From the most senior manager to the newest recruit, everybody resists change. All too often however, the label ‘change resistant’ is attached to anyone who expresses anything other than unqualified enthusiasm for an organisational change initiative.
In an example of a worst case scenario, a senior manager, frustrated with the questions being asked about a restructure he had announced, interpreted questions about what it would mean for particular departments as evidence of ‘resistance to change’ and put pressure on the line managers involved to implement ‘performance management’ processes. In fact, the questioners were simply trying to understand the rationale for the changes and the personal implications. By adopting a ‘battlefield mindset’ which involved ‘overcoming’ resistance the senior manager squandered an opportunity to engage staff in implementing the change. He also demonstrated his own capacity for resistance!
A far more effective approach to dealing with resistance to change is to accept that everyone resists change whether or not they express it openly. It is part of a manager’s role to create an environment in which people can deal with their own and other’s resistance in constructive and supportive ways. This includes a manager dealing effectively with his or her own resistance!
In an approach which contrasts starkly with the ‘battlefield’ approach, after a major restructure had been announced by the CEO, an R&D manager called a meeting of her staff to discuss the implications for their department and to provide an opportunity for team members to speak openly about their immediate responses to the announcement. Some expressed anger about “being kept in the dark”, others voiced their sense of relief that rumoured change had been formally announced. Over the next few weeks the team worked together to redesign some of their work processes in the light of impending budget cuts. Following the manager’s lead they also made sure that every team meeting agenda included time to check in on how everyone was feeling about the changes. The team agreed on a rule for these sessions which was ‘It’s okay to feel how you feel. No judgements!’
Some resistance is entirely avoidable. When change initiatives are the result of hasty, incomplete planning, when communication processes are one way only or when staff members are consulted and their advice ignored, resistance can be an expression of disempowerment and fear of personal loss. When managers encounter resistance to change the first thing they should ask themselves is ‘How might I have contributed to this?’.
How do YOU resist change? What helps you to deal with your own resistance? How do you respond when others appear resistant?
Diverse responses to change
People respond in widely differing ways to change in general and therefore to workplace change. Smart change leaders understand that a single change initiative can trigger a wide range of responses, some quite different from their own and quite unlike what they had expected from others.
The extrovert is likely to voice reactions early, to ask the questions that others want answered and tends to prefer to talk about their reactions with others. This helps the extrovert’s thought processes. The introverted type on the other hand is more likely to want to think things through and reflect inwardly as preparation for discussing aspects of the change with others, including their manager. A person with a preference for thinking over feeling is more likely to apply detached logic to an announced change and may express impatience with colleagues who have a more obviously ‘feeling’ orientation and want to openly process their emotional reactions.
A CEO, known for his introversion and his tendency to announce plans for change after he had thought them through carefully, felt increasingly annoyed with one of his senior managers who always seemed to have more questions than the CEO cared to answer. Over time the tension between them increased and eventually the manager became sufficiently frustrated with the clash of working styles that he resigned to take up another role. In contrast with the CEO’s interpretation that the questions signalled dissention, the senior manager’s questions arose out of his belief that in order to gain his staff’s commitment to the changes he needed to fully understand them and the rationale behind them for himself.
A more enlightened CEO would have invested time in gaining an understanding of the significance of human factors such as psychological ‘type’ and personal values and how they influence people’s responses to change. Deeper insights into his own preferred ways of operating and the effect on others could have provided valuable food for thought about the adjustments he could make in order to work optimally with colleagues.
Rather than expecting people’s responses to match their expectations or to mirror their own responses, managers and leaders of change benefit from an appreciation of differences between people’s psychological make-up and its effect on workplace behaviour. A good starting point is to deepen your own insights into your habitual ways of responding to change. Self-awareness is a prerequisite for understanding others!
How do you react when someone’s reaction to change is different from what you expected? How do you feel when someone’s reaction to change appears opposite to your own?
Human adjustment to change
All organisational change requires personal changes to be made by individuals in the organisation. From the CEO to the newest recruit people must be willing to grow, learn and adapt for successful outcomes to be achieved for all. And everyone has their own unique way of doing it!
What can be done to inspire and motivate the people whose commitment to growth, learning and adaptation is essential for change plans to be realised? The answers lie in understanding the fundamental difference between organisational change and people’s psychological transitions. Effective leadership and management of change demands an integrated approach to both.
Organisational change is situational and external to individuals; new roles and responsibilities, expanded operations, revised policies and the like. Organisational change usually involves alterations to structure (the ‘organisation chart’), changes to systems (frequently triggered by technological advances) and adaptations in processes and procedures. A common characteristic of structural, systems and process changes is that you can plan for them, define and document them and check back with documented aims to make sure that you have implemented what you intended.
Psychological transition is internal to individuals and in coming to terms with change, each person’s transition is unique. Unlike systems and processes which you can redefine and change in an instant, people undergo a psychological process of coming to terms with a new situation. This requires people to engage in a transition from former ways of working to whatever is needed for the planned changes to be effective. Transition involves letting go of some familiar ways of thinking and working and getting used to new ways. It involves an emotional as well as an intellectual journey. For every restructure there is an accompanying internal psychological process for every person affected by it, in which they accept an ending to some old ways of working and embrace new beginnings.
At the heart of many failed change initiatives is an approach to change management which fails to account for this fundamental difference between change and transition. When managers expect staff to accept changes ‘unemotionally’ and when they reject ‘change resistance’ as an unacceptable behaviour they deny a natural human process and along the way dramatically increase the risk of failure.
When two not-for-profit organisations entered into merger planning, extensive due diligence was undertaken so that each party could examine both the financial standing of the other and its position with respect to legal obligations. Unlike many due diligence processes, this merger also included cultural due diligence in which each organisation looked closely at its own and the other’s culture in order to check for compatibility and in order to assess what needed to change for both parties. The exploration of the two cultures and their compatibility went way beyond the simplistic ‘how we do things around here’ approach into consideration of each organisation’s core values and entrenched beliefs.
Staff at all levels participated in this review, the outcome from which was that well before the merger was formalised, staff experienced a process which supported their individual and shared transitions. Unlike mergers in which each merging party clings tightly to its former identity, staff in these organisations were able to create a new identity borne out of the strengths of its two predecessors.
An awareness of the principles of human adjustment to change and willingness to pay adequate attention to the implications equip leaders and managers with a valuable foundation for supporting staff to create and adapt to change. When staff members feel that the unseen effort of psychological adjustment is respected as well as the observable evidence of their efforts, trust is built and workplace health benefits ensue.
Think about a time when a change was imposed on you. What was your immediate response? And over time? How well do you understand the principles of psychological transition?
Effective leadership of change involves practical understanding of all the factors above and much more. Whether they are working at a strategic or an operational level, change leaders create a vision of where change efforts are headed and engage others in sharing the vision and determining their part in its realisation. Change leaders take calculated risks and help empower others to do so. They see the removal of obstacles to change as part of their role.
In contemporary organisations, change leadership is rarely the exclusive domain of the person at the top of the hierarchy. Nor do you need to be a line manager in order to be a change leader. When leadership is defined as ‘seeing what needs to be done and influencing others to play their part in effecting change’, leadership can be distributed across the organisation. When authorised to act and trusted by colleagues, ‘change champions’ can make a significant contribution to change efforts by modelling new ways of working and providing support to colleagues in making the adjustments necessary for change to be wholeheartedly embraced.
Effective leadership of change involves having a clear and consistent leadership philosophy across the organisation. For example, a highly consultative approach is likely to cause confusion and frustration if the dominant leadership style exhibited by senior managers is directive and staff members have learned to depend on direction from the top. This is not to say that leadership is about mirroring the person at the top; rather it is about being clear what is meant by ‘leadership’ in your particular setting and taking steps to ensure that everyone in a leadership capacity acts is ways which are consistent with it.
When a very large government department wanted to implement a new client relationship management system, the effect was going to be dramatic across the entire organisation and across the many agencies funded by the department. Senior management took responsibility for the strategic direction taken by the organisation and defined the boundaries of the work involved in the new systems implementation project. The project manager’s role was to lead far reaching organisational change by working collaboratively with managers across the organisation. The project’s design included a number of ‘change catalyst’ roles. People who were appointed to these roles continued in their substantive positions (with modified responsibilities) in user departments and contributed to the system’s implementation by influencing and supporting colleagues across the organisation to embrace the changes and embed new work practices. Their training for the ‘change catalyst’ roles involved learning about differing responses to change, how to deal with resistance and helped them develop insights into their own ways of adapting to change.
Sustainable organisational change requires both leadership and management in differing measures depending on the circumstances. For a more detailed examination of the difference see the Management Insights title ‘Am I a Leader or a Manager or Both?’
What are the leadership aspects of your current role? How would you describe your leadership style? What leadership style do you see demonstrated by the most senior person in your organisation?
To summarise.. . . . .
The outcomes from change efforts are often disappointing and costly. Professionals who are charged with responsibility for leading and managing change must devote attention to people’s needs as well as to the structure, process and system changes they want to implement for any change initiative to produce optimal outcomes.
People’s commitment to change is critical for success and true commitment emerges from an internal psychological process of ‘transitioning’ from former ways of working to new ways. Accepting that people think and respond differently and that resistance is a natural part of the human adaptive process will make a significant contribution to change leadership and management effectiveness.
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About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and change through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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