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How to take a more human approach to change management.

I was sitting in yet another client meeting talking about an upcoming organisational transformation program. I had sat in probably hundreds of similar meetings throughout my consulting career, all with a common theme. “Our people are fatigued with change”, the client said, “and we really need them to get on board with this critical transformation program!”. I could hear the anxiety in the client’s voice. He had been getting pressure from head office for months and needed to make this program stick.

He wasn’t alone. His team has been working for weeks on pulling together a change plan – but I could tell they had reservations about the program too. “How do we really connect with our people on this project?” the program lead asked. “We have the kickoff in a few days, and we are only going to get one chance to set the tone of this project.” One of the subject matter experts chimed in, “We have done this before – our people are just resistant to change”, she said, with a look of genuine concern on her face.

I let the conversation play out for a few more minutes and then turned to the project sponsor, “Would you be willing to try something different? I promise we won’t break anything,” I said smiling – trying to relieve the tension in the room. “What did you have in mind?” he replied.

The trouble with change

Change is daunting for many leaders – often perceived as having more risk than benefit – and that is the paradox. The competitive business environment demands that businesses adapt and transform – yet our organisational appetites for risk are often relatively low. At worst, we punish those who fail to successfully execute transformational programs. At best, we don’t even try – creating a change paralysis.

Change is not going away – and being able to successfully navigate change is a core skill that all leaders and team members need to develop.

In addition, the levels of diversity in our workplaces are thankfully rising. With this diversity comes increased individuality and even more complexity when it comes to implementing change programs. As humans, we all respond to change differently – and any change effort needs to take this individuality into account and realise that real change happens one person at a time. This is why many leaders find driving change to be challenging, as there is seldom a “one size fits all” approach in doing so.

The old paradigm was that we transformed “organisations”. The new reality is that we must make change happen individually. This is hard and requires many leaders to adopt new styles and capabilities. However, it is the only way to create organisational change that sticks in the long term.

What makes an effective change leader?

In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman assessed almost 600 leaders – asking their direct reports how effective they were at leading change. On analysing the dataset Zenger and Folkman found some behaviours more effective than others. Let’s start with the easy one – what doesn’t work – being “nice” and “nagging”.

I am sure you have seen it at some stage in your career. The “nice” leader. I don’t disparagingly mean this. Leaders should be creating safe and collaborative environments for their teams. I am referring to leaders who try to effect change by being “nice”. They are typically compensating for a lack of capability in connecting with their team on a genuine level.

On the other hand, is the tyrant. The leader who tries to effect change with an iron fist – dragging, nagging and kicking their team towards a change outcome. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the approach also doesn’t work.

So what does work?

Zenger and Folkman identified seven positive change leadership behaviours.

  • Inspiring others
  • Noticing problems
  • Providing a clear goal
  • Challenging standard approaches
  • Building trust in their judgement
  • Courage
  • Making change a priority

I agree with this list, but I would like to add to it. I believe this analysis missed a nuance regarding the first behaviour – inspiring others. Whilst I agree that inspiring your team to change is essential, mobilising individuals is what makes change happen.

Shift happens

Inspiration never takes place at an organisational level. You can’t inspire an organisation – only the people within it. The same is valid for making shift happen – you don’t change the organisation; you change the individuals.

You may see this as splitting hairs – but in my opinion, this requires a fundamental reframing of change for leaders. The focus is less on broad communication strategies and more on how we understand, connect, and motivate individual team members. It requires leaders to become “servants” and have the EQ to better understand every team member’s motivations, fears, and aspirations. It’s about authentic leadership and answering the age-old question that your team will be asking themselves – “What’s in it for me?

The big 8 & the elephant in the room

I love that teams are filled with a variety of individual personalities. I love even more that teams are increasingly more diverse. That said, when an impending change is announced, these individuals have one thing in common – they will all be asking themselves the ‘big 8’.

I have seen even the most stoic of team members go pale at the thought of “yet another change”. Change has been “done to” rather than “with” teams for so long that even the most engaged employees have become cynical. When you next stand on stage (or Zoom) to announce your new change program, rest assured, your employees will be sitting in the audience – along with a big grey elephant. They will be asking themselves these eight obvious but essential questions. Even more frightening is that when you call for questions at the end, they might not even verbalise them.

So my advice to leaders when kicking off their next change program is to steer into the iceberg (or the elephant) and be sure to answer the big 8;

  1. What is happening with the business – give me some context?
  2. Why is the way we do things today no longer good enough?
  3. Why are we changing?
  4. What is changing?
  5. What is not changing?
  6. How are we changing?
  7. What is the risk of not changing?
  8. What is in it for me?

These questions may seem really simple and obvious. Still, I am always surprised at how frequently they are not addressed directly and clearly. Practively answering the “What’s in it for me?” question is one of the most potent ways to get individuals engaged with change. Having a good communications strategy that speaks to individual concerns is a good start. However, it is only the first step in taking a more people-centric approach to organisational transformation.

Coaching the coaches

Effective transformation needs to be driven from the top. However, a substantial contributing factor to the success or failure of a change effort lies in the hands of line managers. First-level line managers can be significant change champions or can rapidly derail your change program. Why? Because in times of uncertainty, team members will take their cue from their immediate manager.

Managing change on an individual level requires deft use of empathy and emotional intelligence. The Kübler-Ross Change Curve is a helpful visual chart of how change affects people. Still, the truth is that individuals will move along this curve at varying speeds, and many will become stuck at a certain point and need support.

A critical step in laying the foundations for a successful change program is to ensure that line managers are equipped with the toolkit and skills needed to support their team through the change. That might mean involving them in developing the change program early, listening, and providing support materials like FAQ’s.

Most important, however, is ensuring that they have strong coaching skills that they can deploy when needed. Managers can make themselves familiar with the stages of coping with change and be ready to recognise how employees might be impacted – offering support and guidance where needed. Do not underestimate the power that first-line managers have to accelerate and support the transformation.

An agile approach to change

I am a massive advocate for agile ways of working. This does not necessarily mean the adoption of formal agile operating models. However, some core tenants of agile really supercharge change programs. The first of these is empowered cross-functional teams.

I have seen change programs deployed as something that is done “to” employees rather than “with” them all too frequently. Programs delivered by centralised change teams that have minimal contact with the business and little context. This is a contributing factor towards the current levels of change cynicism and fatigue. These approaches are often a result of a deeper cultural issue – mistrust and a lack of empowerment.

Change programs that harness the power of their people just flat out have a greater chance of success. This doesn’t mean endless “listening sessions” and townhalls. It does mean recognising that significant talent exists in your organisation and that many decisions can be decentralised – moving them closer to the customer context. Decisions made by small, cross-functional teams who actually do the work. This empowerment of team members generates greater engagement with the program and results in more successful outcomes.

The second agile practice that benefits change programs is breaking down the work and delivering value incrementally. Large organisations are usually synonymous with significant transformations. Many of these programs take a “big bang” approach – requiring vast amounts of change to be undertaken in a short amount of time. Sometimes this urgency (and associated risk) is warranted, but usually not.

An alternative approach is to think of change as constant and iterative. Leaders can then take a “test and learn” mindset and break down significant change objectives into smaller, more manageable work packages. This not only means you will start to deliver visible change early (creating program momentum), but it reduces risk – allowing you to “inspect and adapt” as you discover things along the way.

It’s time for change to evolve.

Change management is not a new topic in business, but it continues to be challenging for many organisations. There are many different approaches to change management. However, any process must be tailored towards individual needs. Managers need to be given the trust, tools and techniques to coach their teams through the change. I also firmly believe that we can borrow from agile to deliver change more rapidly and with less risk. What do you think? Does the approach to change management need to evolve, and what have you seen work?

If you would like to know more or need help making your change programs more effective, contact us.

Jamie Pride is a Partner at Humanly Agile. He has over 27 years of experience in business transformation and is highly passionate about the future of work. His areas of expertise include organisational design, enterprise agility, people strategy & employee experience.

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