What comes to mind when you hear the word “change?” Bring a group of people together and ask them to share the first words that come to mind when you say change and more often than not, the most common responses are stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and hard. That doesn’t have to be the case. Change can be the opportunity for success, satisfaction and improvement.
A quick look at why change is often needed. Lawrence Lezotte in Assembly Required tells us, “…the system in place is ideally suited to producing the results the school is currently getting…” This is a newer version of if you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results and its correlate, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. We need to be guided by the data—if we are not making progress toward goals, we need to change!
The question for the effective leader is not if change is needed, but the best way to implement the change. There are several approaches to consider. Here are three:
Transparency: Change can be intimidating. Sharing information with your staff is a good first step. Letting them know the “why” (the thinking behind the change), the “how” (the operationalizing of the change) and the “what” (the desired outcome) can alleviate stress and demystify the change. Informing people empowers people. For the change to be successful you want a group of informed and empowered people as opposed to uninformed and unengaged people.
Empathy: Leaders may have a clearer vision of the change they want and transparency may help your team gain a better understanding of that vision, but empathy will help the leaders bind their people to the vision and the needed change. Leaders should not assume they know how their team feels—leader’s perception of how their people feel can be affected by the leader’s own bias in relation to their plan for change (I know what is best), as well as their staff’s potential resistance to questioning the “boss” (I am not going risk my job by not agreeing). Without a strong culture that allows for questioning, staff may not share honest feedback. The result can be a feeling of alienation and apathy on the part of the team and more importantly in terms of change, no buy-in, but more likely passive-aggressive participation.
One pro-active approach is talking with and listening to staff. Ask what worries them the most, and what are their fears. What kind of improvements they would want to see and how they think those improvements can be made. Listening is the first part. Acting on what is heard in a meaningful and thoughtful way is the second. If what is learned is not addressed, rather than creating empathy, leaders run the risk of creating animosity. “Why bother asking if you aren’t really going to listen?”
Understanding the change
Michael Fullan in “Leading is a Culture of Change” writes: “This is why many of us have concluded that change cannot be managed. It can be understood and perhaps led, but it cannot be controlled.” Later in the same book he shares, “Mintzberg et al. (1998) draw the same conclusion when they reflect ‘the best way to manage change’ is to allow it to happen, to be pulled by the concerns out there rather than be pushed by the concept in here.” Realizing and accepting that change by its nature cannot be controlled, opens the leader rather to listening and concentrating on guiding change. Another aspect of understanding change is that in a very real way, if your team buys in to the change, their very involvement and buy-in will affect the change and the vision—and such change is a sign of success. Your team is contributing and growing your vision.
Change is a complex process. It is complex because it about vision, people, and growth. Each of these factors are complex separately—together they offer a challenge to any organization. Transparency, Empathy and Understanding the Change are three effective approaches to leading people through change successfully.