Leader-Led Change

Have you got what it takes to lead change?
Have you got what it takes to lead change?

Planned organisational change may be driven by many factors. Examples include seeking efficiencies and greater productivity, addressing dysfunction and conflict, revamping inadequate processes and systems, merging with a business partner, or setting your mark on the organisation as a previous manager has departed.

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee in their Harvard Business Review Primal Leadership article in December 2001 wrote: “A growing body of research on the human brain proves that, for better or worse, leaders’ moods affect the emotions of the people around them.” However, leaders not only set the mood and have a direct impact on the emotional worlds of their people, as the article describes, but also set the culture and behavioural tone and norms of the organisation. So, when considering change, what do you need to change about yourself and how you function for your organisation to perform better?

W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru, suggested that 85% of the responsibility for quality rested with management, to provide the appropriate tools, training, processes and other enablers, and after all that was provided, 15% of the responsibility rested with the workers. I believe that also applies to the mood, attitudes, behaviours and norms of the organisation as a whole.

Enormous energy is exerted in organisational restructures. Poor performance is identified and rooted out. Ineffective systems replaced. Reporting structures are adjusted. However, for all the effort a significant and often poorly addressed issue is the cultural and behavioural conserve held among the management team. While the organisation is being driven through significant and often unnecessarily painful change processes, the attitudes, behaviours, and cultural norms within the management team remain unchanged, unrecognised as contributing to the overall organisation’s performance. The decision makers are able to say “the problem is out there” and rarely take a critical look at their own contributions.

Consider:

  • What do you do to set the tone and culture within your organisation? Are your words and actions aligned?
  • Do you demand and expect respect without extending the same to those who report to you?
  • Do you demonstrate the loyalty you expect of your team? Or do you excuse your choices and actions that perhaps sideline and disenfranchise individuals, while calling for everyone to engage fully and authentically, and wonder why there is a disturbance within the rank and file? Do you permit others’ to spread rumour and conjecture, or undermine the work of those in your team?
  • Do you provide a high performance environment? Do you cleanly delegate work, providing clear boundaries on how the work should be performed and what the measure of success are, and allow the team member to grow and develop in the role? Or are you a control freak, driven by fear, who micromanages and strangles growth potential? Do you honour the established boundaries around agreed packages of work or do you allow scope creep to erode the authority of those under you? Do you then also hold them responsible for failure to perform?
  • Are you professional in your behaviours and relationships? Do you excuse angry outbursts, unreasonable demands and other corrosive behaviours because you’re busy and under stress? Do you meet the commitments you make? Do you hold yourself to the same standards you expect of others? Do you walk your talk?
  • Is your decision-making clear, calm, fact-based and rational? Do you expect this of your team, but when faced with a decision you rely on management imperative to make a rushed “gut” decision, rationalising it is from your years of experience, flying in the face of all you claim you want practiced within your organisation? Worse, do you then change your decision when next posed with a new opinion (perhaps without informing those impacted)?
  • Do you provide clear direction and leadership? Have you noticed the puzzled expression, or disdain, across your team as you issue instructions? Do you lack clarity, such that you are not able to understandably express what you want? Or have you changed direction yet again? Do you respond openly to questions seeking clarification or do you expect subordinates to read your mind (perhaps even when you can’t)?

It has been my observation from a couple of decades of consulting that these and other such issues are frightfully common. Why? Because leaders are human and no one is perfect. The problem is when a leader chooses to avoid checking on their way of being. In my opinion it would be ideal for the leadership of an organisation to honestly assess their behavioural and attitudinal contribution to the performance and mood of an organisation as part of any change process. Obtaining valuable, truthful feedback takes more than demanding it. Few leaders are blessed to be surrounded by people willing to say, “You are not wearing any clothes”, so obtaining such insight requires time, a sense of safety among those asked for input, and trust that negative feedback will not jeopardise the position of the person offering the feedback.

As a leader, are you leading from the front, enabling others to follow? Have you assessed your own short-comings in relation to the direction and practices required within the organisation and established a roadmap for your own development? Or are you metaphorically barking instructions through a megaphone on what the team should do, and excusing yourself because you’re a coach, not a player.

If you want to create positive change, be part of the change process, not separate from it. Ensure that your capacity as a leader and manager is maturing and developing, and that you have made some conscious, positive changes to your style, that you’re not as you were ten years ago. If you are not emulating the behaviours you expect your team to portray, get real with yourself and stop excusing your own poor performance.

Options available to you include coaching and mentoring, personal and professional development, primarily targeted at the long-overused patterns of behaviour and attitudes that hold you and your team back from truly excelling.

Organisational Consciousness

Consciousness refers generally to the state of knowing or awareness an individual has of their external surroundings, their own inner processes, and how to behave in a normal manner. From birth we each pass through developmental stages which are linked to changes in our levels of consciousness.

With each change in consciousness we learned that:

  • Life is more complex than we had previously appreciated
  • Our current approaches, methods and processes in life are not effective
  • New approaches become available to us as we open up to their possible existence, and have the courage to pursue them
  • Mastery of a new level of consciousness requires time, effort, and a fumbling or settling in period – mistakes are essential to the transition.
Aspects of an organisation

Frustration is the common state or feeling that initiates the transition to a higher developmental stage. Through frustration we recognise the inadequacies in our current approach, and our inability to manifest our ideas or desires easily. We encounter many barriers and much resistance that halts or impedes us.

Organisational consciousness parallels that of individuals. The level of consciousness for an organisation is based on the effective functioning and alignment of each of the following four aspects of the organisation, and is the responsibility of the leadership of the organisation. The Ends or ‘vision and values’ of the organisation articulates WHY the organisation exists. Through Organisational Leadership specific leadership practices, governance, planning, and communications define WHAT will happen WHEN. Sound management of Personnel enables the WHO to act effectively, while the Means of the organisation, including facilities, process, systems, policies etc define HOW things are accomplished.

I am sure we have all observed organisations thwarted by inadequate or ineffective practices, which gradually (or quickly) overwhelm through the growing number of crises. The typical response is to treat issues in isolation, viewing them as individual and discrete. Fire-fighting mentality takes over with each organisational group responsible for fixing their problems, applying organisational first aid. Frustration is a common feeling throughout such an environment. The organisation must shift its level of consciousness and discover a new way of operating to achieve greater effectiveness. Executive and senior leadership must lead this. It starts with the Ends and must move down through the other organisational aspects – organisational leadership, personnel, and means. Vision and courage on the part of the leadership team is essential to shift organisational consciousness.

As with an individual, an organisation necessarily faces significant confusion and upheaval amid change. Change always generates tension, fear and resistance. However the uncontrolled change brought on by the panicked reactions of a failing organisation is worse than planned, deliberate and conscious steps taken by an organisation seeking to establish a new vision, philosophy and approach to business. Successfully shifting an organisation to a new level of consciousness requires:

  • Recognising a need for real and lasting organisational change
  • Engaging the support and involvement of key stakeholders
  • Crafting the vision and the strategic and operational plans
  • Implementing the changes in an effective, deliberate manner
  • Assessing the results to ensure that desired outcomes have been accomplished, taking corrective action as required

As a result, those who work for, with or belong to the organisation will have a changed awareness of the long-term purpose of the organisation, what their specific function or role is within that purpose, and why and how goals are pursued and success is measured. Organisational consciousness has been raised. New mechanisms and measures for operating exist, and everyone affected is aware of the shift. This is more than just a change project. It is change that engages everyone and necessarily includes culture change.

Shifting organisational consciousness does not merely critique and focus on the methods used to achieve goals. It examines the goals being sought. It changes culture. It enables new ways of operating. It sheds the old and invites the new. It is a powerful journey, an awakening, and requires the courage of all involved, but most particularly and especially of those who lead the organisation.

Responding to Change

“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”
“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”

The Western world is in an uproar over the predicted-by-some, yet surprising-to-most, election win by Donald Trump. For me, the event and its aftermath is a fantastic example of what many experience as “unwanted change”, and the behaviours that manifest at such times. This is a fantastic public theatre of what occurs on a smaller, often ignored, scale within organisations undergoing change, planned or unplanned, welcomed by or imposed on the employees. This article highlights some of the more obvious behaviours being exhibited and highlights some considerations that may create a more positive outcome at an individual level.

We have seen significant grass-roots responses to unrecognised needs by those in power in the form of Brexit. Now a surprise (to some) Trump victory. As life giving as change can be, it is not always positive. Enough wars show change can be damaging. Fear is palpable now. For many groups, if Trump seeks to fulfil his intent stated in his campaign speeches, there are real threats to loss of rights and liberty. Some of his early choices suggest he intends honouring, as far as possible, what he promised during his campaign.

Based on some of the more obvious behaviours being demonstrated since the Trump election win, here are some ways people react to change:

  • Polarisation and strengthening of positions: Ardent fighters for and against a change strengthen their positions and fight it out. The fight may be peaceful, or might descend as low as individual human morality allows. There will be a mixture of those aggressively assailing others with a different point of view, whether physically, emotionally or through power over. Others will assert themselves, clearly identifying who they are and what they stand for, without imposing on others. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers’ non-violent protests of British rule is a good example of the latter.
  • Run away and hide: This may be observed as people and groups getting busy with something else, a way of distancing from the pain of loss and occupying themselves with something they have control over. It may be literally exiting the scene, leaving the country, becoming a hermit, or otherwise divorcing self from the challenge of being or staying engaged.
  • Filter reality: Notice how many proponents of each side argue, using only the information (often opinions of others rather than real facts) that supports their view, and ignore anything counter to their position. This also shows when others are accused of falsehood when citing something that is counter to the position held. The media are getting a lot of flak for beating up situations if they merely mention something that doesn’t support promoted views.
  • Normalisation: “Give him a chance”, “Wait and see” and in a practical sense, sitting on one’s hands. Then, almost as in a frozen state of numbness nothing is said or done as ongoing change initiatives bring into reality the worst nightmares of those who voiced fear of the worst. For example,
    • Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right nationalists’ recommended media source, Breitbart News, appointed as Chief Strategist
    • Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency
    • Trump’s own children being put forward for cabinet and advisory roles, and simultaneously running his and their own businesses, with a simple, “You can trust us.” Very basic ethical principles are trampled underfoot, and seems to be widely accepted as okay. Not if anyone else tried it!
  • Disavow any responsibility: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realise this would happen?”, “How could I know?” Or as in Seth Meyer’s case, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when challenged on calling Bannon ‘controversial’, he was unwilling to give an opinion because he had not met the fellow conservative. Seth Meyers, of the Closer Look program, called Meyers on this side-step well when he said, “I’ve never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.” It is as though many are running for cover and refusing to say anything that may impact their future position with the one in charge. They could do with taking Lucy Gennaro McClane’s advice to Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), “You need to grow a bigger set of balls!”

When facing change, we each have choice. We can allow fear to overcome us and react to what is happening from that place. We rely on the fear-based survival reactions fight, flight, freeze and fabricate. Alternatively, we can function from our personal power, and manifest the power-based thrive responses assert, attend, act and authenticate. The former requires little consciousness from us, with our amygdala (or reptilian brain) reacting to threat. The latter requires conscious choice and self-intervention to assure we behave in a manner that is of our choosing. The thrive responses also require that we are clear about and are congruent with our values, not relinquishing them when the going gets a little tougher.

What I experienced as warm, heart-felt and assertive was the plea and invitation offered to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton at the end of their show. The play was themed around freedom,  the constitution and diversity. After the final curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mr Pence, inviting him to listen, and said:

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016 (link)

Debate is as polarised around whether this was appropriate as it is on many other issues related to the election and subsequent events. One of the bigger questions is how to voice disagreement in an environment that seems hostile to any opinion counter to the future Commander-In-Chief.

While I have used very public examples from the follow-on of the Trump election, these behaviours often occur in change situations. The choices you make in response determine your contribution to the outcome. When confronted with change, particularly change you do not welcome, what do you choose to do? Do you voice concerns you hold? Do you assert what matters to you? Do you shrink away and leave it to others to work through? Do you get overwhelmed and find it all too much, unable to find anything you can constructively do? Do you look for what you can do, stay engaged and take some action? Do you blame others for what has happened? Do you act from a place of personal responsibility and ownership and attempt to help shape next steps?