Change is constant and to survive and thrive organisations must be adept in anticipating and responding to changing circumstances.
This requires visionary and strategic leadership from the top supported by effective leadership and management across the organisation, integrating people’s efforts and ensuring that plans for change are realised on time and within budget. These principles are usually well understood but mounting evidence indicates that leadership and management practice frequently fails to deliver desired results.
When change efforts flounder, managers often lament the difficulties associated with getting staff to act in ways that are supportive of new initiatives and become frustrated by the hurdles they encounter along the way. In the process staff are assigned to categories such as ‘on board’ or ‘resistant to change’, with little thought given to what leads some people to adapt quickly to new initiatives and others to appear to cling to the past. On the other hand, some organisations and some managers produce vastly superior outcomes in which major change initiatives are successfully implemented, outcomes exceed expectations, and staff satisfaction soars. So what makes the difference?
An appreciation of why people behave the way they do in a workplace and how to influence them is an essential competency for leading and managing change and it doesn’t require a degree in psychology to get there! Understanding and applying just three principles will take managers a long way towards developing this critical capability.
First, people’s behaviour (what we see them doing and hear them saying) is influenced by many factors which are not visible to others; their upbringing, cultural background, personal values, life histories and many other factors all contribute to shaping who they are and how they perceive the world around them. As well, the ‘climate’ in a person’s work environment can have a significant bearing on the attitudes people express and the way they conduct themselves.
In order to gain insight into why a person behaves the way they do, managers must devote sufficient effort to understanding the underlying beliefs and assumptions which help shape a person’s decisions about how to respond to workplace change. For example, a staff member who feels demeaned by a boss may respond aggressively to demands that they do things differently even though they might be otherwise committed to the change initiative. In another example, a person from a cultural background which values what is good for a group (collectivism) above what is good for the individual (individualism) may initially resist change efforts, not because they fear their own interests will be compromised but because they’re concerned about the effect on their work group.
Some managers argue that it is not appropriate to enquire about personal values and beliefs, citing privacy legislation or other aspects of the law relating to workplace relations. This misses the point. Paying attention to the factors which drive people’s behaviour doesn’t depend on intrusive questioning about a person’s upbringing or cultural background. It does depend on managers putting effort into developing an understanding of their staff and how they perceive their work environment and work related challenges.
The second principle flows from the first. In order to better understand colleagues in general and staff who report to them in particular, managers must learn to temporarily suspend judgement in order to focus on developing understanding. This is not a call to abandon judgement since managerial decision-making is ultimately about making judgements. It is about developing a capacity to suspend judgment, to question your own assumptions and bring curiosity to the fore in order to enquire about others’ perspectives. By doing this a manager can gain valuable insights into viewpoints which are quite different from her own.
For example, when a staff member’s immediate reaction to a new change initiative is “It’s not going to work”, or “We tried that before and it failed” the ‘judging’ manager might respond with irritation and mentally classify this person as ‘change resistant’. The ‘curious’ manager intent on deepening their understanding of the potential effects of change initiatives could respond with “I’d like to hear more about your views on that”. Invited in this way to voice concerns, staff gain opportunities to feel involved in creating and driving change.
Ultimately a staff member’s fears might prove unfounded. On the other hand they may have discerned important aspects of the planned change which had not been taken into account by the architects of the change. Most importantly, when managers canvass and genuinely listen to staff perspectives, they engender the sort of workplace engagement which characterises high performing organisations. Staff feel valued and are more likely to participate proactively in change processes.
Some insist that strategic leadership is about providing clear direction and setting unambiguous expectations and that suspending judgment in order to deepen understanding of staff behaviour and attitudes is an abdication of leadership and management responsibility. On the contrary, by seeking to understand others’ reactions, managers are attending to the most challenging aspect of organisational change – dealing with people’s psychological adjustment to change.
The third principle is that in order to better understand the workplace behaviour and attitudes of others, managers must hone their self awareness and self management skills. For example, a manager experiencing frustration that staff appear unwilling to comply with their requests should reflect first on the contribution they might have made to staff reactions. A ‘telling’ style for example might have triggered a hostile response; as might an overly cautious approach to delivering the same message, since staff are usually highly skilled in interpreting management ‘spin’.
Emotional intelligence and emotional resilience are important aspects of self management but they are not the full story. The well rounded practitioner takes their insights further by using them to make informed adjustments to their own workplace attitude and behaviour. This includes but goes well beyond modelling the behaviour a manager wants to see exhibited by others. A self aware manager pays keen attention to their own impact on workplace climate and their effect on others.
Managers who are most effective in managing change have a deep appreciation for the uniqueness of individuals and a determination to inhabit two psychological places concurrently; one is to be truly present to their everyday workplace experience and the other is to ‘tune in’ to others’ reality using both the ideas presented here and the many others available to managers with an interest in better understanding why people think and act the way they do.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant, facilitator and management educator, specialising in organisational and leadership development, governance and performance improvement and team dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).