Avoiding the Mistakes Most Change Leaders Make

It is unfortunate, however, two-thirds of all change initiatives fail. This is a sobering fact for all managers and leaders in organizations. A case-in-point is a senior executive we’ll call Robert from Magenta (not its real name). Modifications to the culture of the organization were required to meet the needs of the newly developed strategy.The strategy had been well thought out and the executive team they needed to execute it well to thrive and prosper in the future – perhaps even to survive.

As CEO, Robert needed everyone in the organization – not just those in formal leadership positions – to be engaged in the change process, actively working to reduce inefficient processes, addressing poor customer service and the subsequent below par financial results.

On the surface and according to most management texts, Robert did everything right. He knew that he had to create a compelling story, because employees must see the point of the change and agree with it. Robert discussed the need to role model the new behaviours with his executive team and the need to align reinforcing mechanisms such as systems, processes, and incentives. Robert consulted with his HR department to ensure that relevant development programs were put in place to build capability so employees would have the skills required to make the desired changes. They brought in specialised skills to support them.

After 12 months had passed, and after spending a lot of time, energy and money, the change outcomes remained patchy and isolated. The strategy also remained a theoretical framework for change. Customer service remained low, and in some cases there was evidence that employees were actively resisting the change. By any measure, the change had failed and the organization was now vulnerable to competitive forces.

So what went wrong? There were a number of fatal errors. Robert had failed to take into account contemporary insights about human nature – insights that if not carefully considered will get in the way of applying the necessary conditions required for meaningful, positive change.

To start with, what often motivates you doesn’t necessarily motivate most of your employees. What the leader cares about (and typically bases at least 80 percent of his or her message to others on) does not mean anything to roughly 80 percent of the workforce. Well intentioned leaders invest significant time in communicating their change story. While this is necessary, more time should be invested in listening, not telling and involving employees in the conversation about the change.

Robert also talked a lot about the ‘burning platform’. While this may appeal to some people, several are seeking positive reasons to change such as creating a successful business for the future.

Robert and his team, like most leaders, mistakenly believed that they were already behaving in positive ways that the rest of the organization should follow. Sadly, most peopled viewed the Executive Team as contrary to the cultrue Robert spruike. Like most executives, Robert and his team didn’t count themselves among the ones who needed to change. How many executives when asked privately will say no to the question, “Are you a team-player?” and yes to the question “Are you a blocker?” The answer is none. The fact is that human beings consistently think they are better than they are.

Robert and the team also mistakenly believed that to motivate people they had to pay them more, one of the many myths about reinforcing behaviours. Money is actually the most expensive motivator while small, unexpected rewards can pay for themselves many times over. Any change also needs to be perceived as fair – reality doesn’t actually matter, it’s what employees think that matters.

Robert and his team also failed to realize that the organization is actually a system and behaves accordingly. The number one issue that Robert failed to address was dealing with ‘adaptive challenges’ and ambiguity. Adaptive challenges can be defined as those without a defined solution, that required fundamental changes in values and beliefs and there are often legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge. Adaptive problems are often systemic problems with no ready answers. To effectively lead change in this environment, leaders need a special set of skills and approach.

To avoid being one of the two-thirds of projects that fail, positive change requires letting go of old patterns and taking a fresh perspective. It includes a focus on opportunities rather than problems, long term versus short term and building adaptability versus controlling people and things.

Developing trust within the organization is often seen as too “warm and fuzzy”, however, the reality is that trust increases the speed of business and cost reduction. It also happens to make the workplace a far more enjoyable place to be. Recently in a mid-sized organization we were working with, a senior member was asked what role she saw trust playing. Her response was sobering. She said, “I think you need to build enough trust so people get the job done, but no more.” What this executive failed to realize was that trust is much more than a nice to have, it lubricates the wheels of individuals, teams and organizations. She went on to say that some of her business units were not working well together and seemed to be in it for themselves. Further exploration indeed raised serious legacy issues around trust and how people had been treated during ‘the last fad’ (as staff labeled it) in the past. A poor approach to change manifests itself down the track when people will just buckle down, not change how they do things and ‘wait for it to go away’. These issues can’t just be swept under the carpet in the hope they will go away.

Often the physical process of changing structures, processes and systems is treated in the same way as ‘changing people’. People go through discrete phases during change that must be managed carefully. Leaders need to create ways of allowing people to validate what’s worked about the past, let go of what hasn’t worked, and be able to embrace the future. They also need to understand what’s in it for them. People don’t fear change per se – if this were true we would still be living in caves. What people actually fear is loss. So in leading any change initiative, this must be managed carefully so people understand what they can keep and what they need to ‘give up’. Change can be an enormously beneficial exercise if managed and led well.

Copyright © 2009 Phillip Ralph

About the Author: Phillip Ralph helps individuals, teams and organisations create breakthrough performance that will make all the difference. Leaders create the environment and context for people to fulfil the mission and goals which in turn impacts culture, employee engagement, and ultimately, organisational performance. To find out how Phillip can help you and your organization achieve success please go to: => http://www.theleadershipsphere.com.au/overview_36.php

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