DIALOGUE AND COMMUNICATION
Communication will take place between all members of an organization in the process of change, and the change leader’s most important challenge is to ensure that it is positive, inclusive, and empowering. Simply sending out a directive with no attempt to seek feedback or suggestions is the wrong way to begin. The successful change leader gets out and talks to people well before the change is announced, creating a dialogue with stakeholders who help shape and refine the plan and identify potential problems. This practice brings everyone on board from the start. Leaders who are willing to really listen during these conversations and to consider other people’s perspectives will gain their trust.
A major element of dialogue and communication is effective listening, which means more than just being quiet when the other person is speaking. Good leaders realize that they cannot possibly know everything, even about their own organizations. They are not threatened by honest feedback because it adds detail to the total picture. Leaders must also adjust and correct their listening skills if they can only interpret what they hear from their own perspectives. Developing a deep interest in other people and an openness to differing perspectives leads to authentic listening, which is an effective communication tool.
While hearing what others have to say is important, an effective change leader must also ensure that everyone within the organization knows what the leader is thinking at all times. The leader acts as the focal point for communication, and realizes that others look to him or her for a continuing message that will help them make sense of the process. Being open, honest, and clear about what is occurring instills confidence in employees and encourages cooperation throughout the organization.
While busy people are well-regarded in most organizations, the change leader should not get so bogged down with work that there is no time to think about how things are going, to identify what is working well, and to contemplate adjustments that may be needed in areas that are not working. Stepping back to look at the overall situation is important for the leader, but is also helpful for teams and other groups and individuals. It should be encouraged in the form of retreats, end-of-week recaps, or end-of-day sessions.
PERSPECTIVE, PURPOSE, AND IDENTITY
People within an organization are likely to have differing perspectives on elements of the change process. These perspectives may change and evolve during the process. When people are given the opportunity to express their perspectives and willingly listen to the perspectives of others, they become less resistant to change. Sharing their visions leads to the formation of a common purpose, an identity, which is further defined by engaging the perspectives of competitors, customers, and even former employees. The change leader must keep all this dialogue going, incorporating each individual identity into the change process.
POWER AND POLITICS
Fifty-six percent of those interviewed by Lawrence said support from the top management of the organization is essential to successful change. That said, the traditional top-down change model proved inadequate in most situations because it did not engage enough people in the decision-making process.
In addition to the executive team being deeply committed to the change, the support of middle management is vital. The people on the front line are used to working with and most apt to trust middle management, who are often the crucial facilitators of change. Change leaders must also take into account the other powers-that-be, such as resource suppliers and experts in the field, and acknowledge the networks of power within the organization.
All leaders are not alike, and most change and grow along with their activities and challenges. Authentic leaders who know themselves and understand what makes them tick, and whose actions reflect their beliefs, are excellent change leaders. They are not afraid to listen to others, and therefore they find it easier to see the similarities between people and bring them to consensus.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
People are sometimes labeled “resistant to change” when, in fact, they may simply be ambivalent. There may be several reasons people in an organization are not embracing change: They may be out of the loop and feel isolated; they may not understand the change and therefore withhold their allegiance to it; or they may believe that the change will mean they will lose their jobs. Open dialogue is the best way to help these employees gain a better understanding of the situation. Involving them in the change gives them the opportunity to see their parts in the vision.
Systemic thinking, as opposed to systematic (top-down and linear) thinking, looks at the big picture and takes into account the complexity of the world as well as the need for flexibility during the change process. Lawrence equates systemic thinking with being able to view the ECM from various balconies, each providing a different view of the process. A problem manifesting in one area of the project, for example, is often affected by a totally different challenge in another aspect of the work, and that issue might need to be addressed in yet another platform in order to solve the problem. The effective change leader continually engages with people in all areas of the project and remains part of the meaning-making process, all while paying attention to who is saying what to whom and what organizational dynamics come into play.
The ECM proved effective for a medium-sized manufacturer/distributor/retailer in Australia, with retail operations there as well as in China, Europe, and the United States. The problem was rapid growth combined with a paucity of new executive candidates who would be ready to step into larger roles. The organizational development manager discovered that employees did not think there was sufficient room for individual growth within the company, and turnover was high. He initiated a “coaching culture” by training the management team, creating a continuing dialogue with coaches, and using workshops and reflective sessions to evaluate how the system was working out. He even involved the CEO. Though the development manager eventually left the organization, as did other leaders and coaches along the way, the program was successful because a coaching environment had prepared employees to deal positively with these changes.
Leaders are often tasked to maintain control and discipline while leading unpredictable change. Smart change leaders realize they cannot do all of this work by themselves. It helps if they can occasionally stand outside the moment to take an objective look at progress, and then report their observations to other stakeholders, who need to understand how the change is proceeding and what might need to be addressed down the road. At each juncture, they must listen to others’ viewpoints as detours or intersections arise. It is impossible to prepare a leader for every situation that could crop up. In place of tools and models, change leaders must rely on practical judgement, which is developed by authentic listening, reflecting on what is heard, and then becoming a curious leader bent on learning and passing on what has been learned to others.
Helping people along the road toward change requires a holistic approach. In addition to other leadership skills, change agents must adopt a social presence and the ability to mix and manage dialogue between groups. Lawrence believes that workshop learning and team focus groups are integral to the future of change. They should not, however, be packed with content, but rather focused around dialogue and reflection. Establishing a clear purpose helps small groups to learn together, and continual evaluation of progress fosters systemic thinking within the organization.
THE ROLE OF COACHING
Today’s systemic coaches do not just talk; they listen. They are effective because they can verbalize company strategy and offer guidance to individuals or groups without being didactic about their expectations. By listening, reflecting, and suggesting, they help people make sense of organizational needs in the context of the individuals’ own needs. Coaching helps people discover how to use their skills and abilities to maximize their value for the company, the project, and themselves. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed five years after receiving successful coaching said they had benefited by gaining increased self-awareness, reflection, and confidence. They also had more productive relationships and the ability to see the bigger picture.