Through my change management consulting and coaching over the past three decades, I have seen what leaders can do to inspire, guide, and sustain change as they earn the hearts and minds of their people. On the flip side, I’ve also seen the impact when a leader ignores, wastes, or fails in some way to lead change.
I’ve seen a COO who had so many priorities and task forces during a year of massive change that the organization diffused its focus and the change efforts were mediocre at best. In contrast, I’ve worked with a CEO to lead a multi-year culture and growth initiative that flourished as he spoke consistently on this effort everywhere he went, adjusting goals, processes, and compensation to support the new way of doing things.
The intensity and frequency of change seems to only be increasing. Leaders need to build change leadership skills to manage the perpetual level of change that exists within our organizations. A change mindset is needed, not just for the big change efforts, but to guide, direct, and align everyone on a day-to-day basis as well.
Based on our experiences, we’ve identified the five change leadership inhibitors that leaders should avoid and the five change leadership drivers that leaders should embrace to ensure successful change. Take a look and see how you can adjust your behaviors to navigate your team through change.
The Five Change Leadership Derailers
Sometimes during change efforts, leaders can become frustrated when things don’t go smoothly and blame people, processes, or technology for challenges, issues, and surprises. For example, leaders may say: the training was terrible, the communication was late, the system is not configured right, or the steering committee failed to consider important considerations. While these comments might be true, the blamer goes one more step by no longer supporting the change effort and failing to hold their team accountable to work toward solutions. Thus, the Blamer abandons their responsibility to help solve problems and instead points their finger at everyone else. They contribute to the problem instead of finding ways to solve it.
The Emotional One:
As people respond and work through organizational change, they can experience a full spectrum of emotions. While negative reactions such as frustration, surprise, anger, anxiety, and confusion are healthy and normal, leaders who allow these emotions to overly control their behaviors can add more challenge than clarity for their team. Emotionally charged leaders can panic when issues begin piling up, allow their temper to flare, become autocratic under pressure, throw in the towel, or make unrealistic demands on performance.
In looking at a change initiative, leaders can sometimes over simplify or underestimate the degree of change and the level of work that will be required. Some examples include, believing that a single communication will be enough to engage others, saving time and money by minimizing training, or assuming sustainability efforts will only be needed for a few weeks. With any change effort, the true depth and specificity of the changes, including unintended consequences and implications, will emerge as the effort gets underway. Organizational change can be messy and underestimating the amount of leadership attention or refusing to acknowledge new levels of complexity can be detrimental to the project.
Change often brings higher levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Decisions can be complicated and unclear. Leaders may feel uncertain or overwhelmed and react by isolating themselves from this chaos. A leader might begin avoiding or putting off important conversations, hiding out in their office, or procrastinating needed decisions. Ignoring the complexity of change is abdicating a leader’s responsibility to be active and visible during change. A leader does not need to have the perfect answers, but they need to be present and available as they work together to find solutions.
Change can sometimes be just too much to deal with. Or better said…change plus all the other day-to-day tasks and projects can add up to be quite overwhelming. The stress can show up differently and at various times during the change process. For some, it can hit at the beginning as they realize the full scope and implications of the change. And for others, it can be felt in the middle when there are so many loose ends that they may bury themselves in what they know and focus on running their business. Stress and burnout are real concerns and leaders can feel overwhelmed for themselves and also for their teams as they tackle the seemingly endless workload.
How can you overcome and manage through these change derailers? Use these following five change drivers to successfully lead change.
The Five Change Leadership Drivers
The primary responsibility of leaders during change, especially large change, is to communicate why this is important, what is going on, and to hear feedback from those impacted by the change. One CEO I worked with said that he would communicate so much during times of times that he wanted to throw up. The description is clearly an exaggeration, but he knew the power of over communicating during change to help, inspire, inform, and align everyone!
The Pace Setter:
In other words, how are you modeling the new way of doing things? The words, tone, and behavior of a leader is often the most important factor in driving and sustaining change. Adjust your behaviors and reactions to match and highlight the new ways of working. Consider how you are adjusting your calendar so you can spend time on tracking and encouraging the change. Reflect on the types of reports you regularly review and the questions you may ask. Be conscious of how you can support the new way of doing things so others will see and follow your example.
The Letting Go Enabler:
One of the hardest things that any person experiences is letting go of habits or beliefs. Recognizing that something has to change can be accompanied by much emotion and resistance. Responding to involuntary change can initially produce anger and frustration before moving to clarity and commitment. These are healthy and normal emotional reactions as anyone processes through a change. This change curve can range from hours to months to years. Yet, a great change leader can respect this change response process and help someone through each step, providing empathetic listening, helpful information, and clear deadlines for moving forward.
Too often during change, more work gets dumped on our plates. While our workloads are already high, here comes more to do! The critical issue is how to prioritize the existing plus new work. Without guidance on what to focus on, everything can become important and thus poor quality and high stress can result. Identify activities in three groups: Good, Better, and Best. Notice there is no Bad because most of anything we do is at least Good. The point is to make sure one is spending 35-40% of their time on their Best (most strategic priorities) and not have the Better (regular improvements) or the Good (day-to-day tasks) become distractions. Meeting weekly with each team member to review these priority categories can help ensure clear focus.
It takes a lot of energy and effort to make change happen and it can be a messy process. We can sometimes be too quick to point out what is going wrong. However, catching people doing things right can go a long way to recognize, thank, compliment, promote, and reward the right kind of behavior. We all need a boost and feedback that we are getting it—that things are heading in the right direction. Identify ways to celebrate day-to-day accomplishments as well as the big milestone achievements. Applaud the good stuff that is happening and bring an element of fun and enjoyment to lift up those who are doing the change.
Putting it to Work
During your next change initiative, check yourself against these change derailers and change drivers. Recognize that change leadership is a mindset that can be practiced every day, being active and visible as you help your teams navigate through change. Build your personal change mindset and see your organization flourish!