Why change leadership is so important
Organizations must respond to a wide range of events that require strong change leadership to maximize opportunities. These events include adopting new technology, reengineering processes, completing mergers and acquisitions, conducting large-scale layoffs, implementing new reporting structures, moving to a new location and addressing new regulatory requirements.
Working through big changes like these can be very difficult – and success is far from guaranteed. In fact, a variety of research studies during the past couple decades have suggested as many as two-thirds or more of major corporate change initiatives fail to realize their intended gains.
Why this poor track record? It seems clear at least part of the answer is the quality of change leadership. A study of several diverse change initiatives revealed the organizations with the best change management capabilities experienced the greatest returns on their investments. Disclosure 1
Beliefs and behaviors
The foundation for all effective leadership – including change leadership – is self-awareness. Effective leaders must understand their beliefs at a deep level. Why? Because beliefs drive behaviors, and behaviors drive results.
Simply put, a leader must establish a clear rationale for and belief in the change initiative, and reflect that belief, to foster a similar belief among the employees being asked to execute the change.
To be effective, leaders need to take stock of their beliefs and make sure they align with the behaviors required to make the change initiative work. Only by doing so can a change leader be credible in the eyes of employees, capable of altering their beliefs and behaviors, and moving the change initiative forward.
The natural cycles of change
A change leader also needs to anticipate and manage the natural process of change. For example, there is a curve employees within the organization will need to work through as they deal with the changes required of them. Each step in the cycle is necessary. Here are the four phases of change your employees will experience and how you should respond:
- Denial. In this first stage, employees may not understand why the change is necessary and may feel it’s bad for them, so they may become apathetic or preoccupied with other matters. The problem with denial is before they can deal with the change, employees have to acknowledge it. An effective leader allows time for the change to sink in, while providing information and encouraging discussion.
- Resistance. Resistance can set in as employees realize the change is actually taking place and is unavoidable. Feelings like anger, self-doubt, fear and anxiety can build up, slowing the progress of change and lowering morale and productivity. It’s also an important part of the process where employees identify exactly what the change means personally for them. The leader needs to listen to employees’ concerns, demystify the change and encourage them to work through this stage.
- Exploration. Employees begin to look for new possibilities. For a time, they may retain some skepticism, resulting in a lack of focus, indecision and distraction. But, generally they are hopeful and receptive to problem solving. In this stage, leaders can help employees modify their ideas to better fit the change, encourage and support brainstorming and strategy sessions, and acknowledge employees’ changing attitudes.
- Commitment. Committed employees may not agree with everything related to the change, but they accept it is based on an inspirational vision and a solid business strategy, and they feel it’s possible for them to contribute and be successful. At this stage, leaders should acknowledge employees’ accomplishments and encourage them to become advocates for the change.
Similarly, as change leaders, you must also anticipate the emotional reactions to change you will personally experience. Here are the four stages you should anticipate:
- Certainty (uninformed optimism). You may be excited to get started, but your emotional response levels will be low, as you’ll be focused on doing rather than thinking. You are most likely not aware of the potential difficulties ahead.
- Doubt (informed pessimism). Eventually you may start to feel some negative emotions about the project, especially if you encounter problems. Each change is unique. You discover it’s harder than you expected and begin to question your ability to lead it. You may even want to quit altogether and give up on seeing it through.
- Hope (hopeful realism). Once you’ve pushed past doubt, pessimism should start to diminish. You may still feel anxious, but you’re more likely to be able to solve problems, because you’re now more familiar with your situation. Your positive beliefs align with behaviors that encourage forward momentum.
- Confidence (informed optimism). You will start to feel confident you have made the right choice. You’ll look at the change with more experienced eyes and feel less anxious about problems, positive in your ability to see it through to a successful outcome.
“Helping employees embrace change,” Jennifer A. LaClair and Ravi P. Rao, The McKinsey Quarterly, 2002 Number 4, Page 17.
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