The Behaviors That Lead Change

A well-known paradox states that the only thing that remains the same is change. Most leaders agree. Businesses are, and always have been, subjected to the influences of technology, economies, politics, competition and the culture. Change is unavoidable. The most successful companies are led by people who recognize the need for change and manage it well. Alternatively, those who cannot will subject their organizations to the risks of failure.

Implementing change is a significant aspect of leading organizations, in some ways more critical than many traditional areas. Some necessary changes are minor, while others are major. Mergers or acquisitions rank in the major-change category, as does rebranding or downsizing.

The way that change is managed can ruin the most passionate dreams of accomplishing it. Studies show that a vast majority of projects involving change don’t succeed. The estimates vary between 60 and 80 percent. Failures in the change process result in large wastes of capital and time, and may send a company backwards from the position it started in.

Evaluations of corporate change reveal something else: the major factor in successful change management is internal to the company, not an influence from the outside. This applies to the organization, as well as the top leader. According to a Harvard Business Review article by organizational change expert Edith Onderick-Harvey, the leader’s behavior is the most critical distinguishing element determining success or failure.

Communication is Critical

Surveys and studies confirm that the most important aspect of organizational change is keeping everyone involved and informed. That requires meaningful and continuous communication. Leaders who want to achieve successful change must have strong communication skills. They must be people oriented.

Employees who comment on their organization’s inability to implement change point to how they were not properly informed, directed or trained regarding the change process. Their leaders attempted to implement change from behind the scenes, hoping everyone would fall in line. This doesn’t happen naturally.

Most people like a predictable and reliable environment, where personal comfort and familiarity provide a sense of safety. For many, change presents risks that take them out of their comfort zones. Risks threaten positions of influence, authority, competency or rewards. Change poses a potential for failure, or the possibility of being worse off than before. That’s why change is resisted.

Staff needs thorough connectedness with leadership to overcome fear of change. Leaders must reach out to their people to convey the need for change with rationale and reasons. They need to set the vision, tout the benefits and lay out the course in a way that compels people to buy into the program. Leaders who effectively implement change are focused on their people as much as the change itself.

Effective change agents understand the perceptions and impacts of change. They care about people and engage them from beginning to end, involving them in every step. This includes the following, all calling for communicative behavior:

  • Introduction with compelling presentations that lay out the need for change and how it will be accomplished
  • Assurance that the needs of the employees are vitally important, and their roles will be enhanced or improved
  • Continuous updates on how things are going and what the timeline looks like
  • Encouragement for people to stay positive and enthused
  • Requests for feedback and opportunities to answer questions, address concerns and revise the plan if needed
  • Empowerment of others to engage in and contribute to the process

Be a Beacon of Light

Successful change agents know their people need encouragement through the process, remembering that many people resist or distrust change. They need an extra measure of positivity and support.

This calls for the leader to have an optimistic outlook and, as Onderick-Harvey describes, view change as an opportunity. If the leader doubts the process, how can their people have confidence in it? A positive mindset at the upper management level is most powerful when it is spread throughout the organization. Leaders who behave confidently with the courage to take on the challenges that come with change have the greatest influence on success.

As the leader, it is imperative that you embrace change rather than fear it, as Inc. Magazine writer Robbie Abed suggests. It is, after all, your program, authorized by you, so fear needs to be eliminated from your behavior from the outset. Your courage must be contagious, especially when setbacks occur. A committed and confident leader calms everyone’s nerves and keeps them forging ahead.

The optimistic leader keeps negative emotions in check. While undergoing change, people need a steady rock, a beacon of light to feel safe and secure. Let them see you in that role.

Part of this approach is a character that believes in people and lets them know it. Empower others to contribute input and ideas. They are, after all, the experts in the detailed operations within your organization. Solicit engagement in crafting solutions and revisions to the plan. Demonstrate that they are trusted, valued and a critical part of implementing the change, which boosts optimism and buy in.

Another way optimism is conveyed is the rejection of the status quo. The old ways of doing things cannot continue and better ways are coming. Better ways will benefit everyone. Yes, it will be hard work to implement change, and there will be struggles. But your people are worth it! Let your people know that they deserve better than “good-enough”.

The Power of Authenticity

As change is announced and implemented, people want the straight story—the truthful picture of what’s happening. If the leader has a secret agenda, hidden motives or suppressed information, people lose trust and won’t provide much-needed buy-in. Behind-the-scenes issues eventually become exposed, so it’s simply best to convey everything up-front with your employees.

This is especially true if the project hits snags. Being open and truthful is the best way to unify the workforce and keep them engaged. People can often handle bad news as long as they’re valued enough to be informed properly and given the chance to respond. As the saying goes, honesty is always the best policy.

This often takes an extra measure of leadership humility, suggests change expert Bill Hogg. A leader who can admit mistakes, see a need for corrections to the plan and lay this out for their people gains the highest trust and participation in staying the course. Your authenticity diminishes their fear of change. An even more powerful approach allows your people to offer their expertise to derive solutions or improvements. Providing opportunities to fully invest in the change process yields the greatest chances for success.

Leaders should be willing and able to handle failures along the way, knowing some will pop up. This is a realistic approach, and by preparing your staff for this, their collective mindset provides the most thoughtful and insightful responses. Change is difficult enough. Being prepared to step in when needed provides a teamwork that can’t be achieved any other way.

A leader’s authenticity in facing adversity, having difficult conversations, conveying their concern for their people and recognizing what needs to be improved makes the change process as rewarding as possible. Your people will grow and have the confidence to take on further changes down the road.

Overturn Leadership Liabilities

Leaders are encouraged to develop their strengths and sharpen their skills to maximize their effectiveness. Many resources are available, including books, seminars, conferences and qualified executive coaches. A coach, of course, can address your specific needs, and customize an approach that perfectly fits your personality, circumstances and goals.

Most leaders understand that all their beliefs and behaviors are exposed. They put their character on display every day. Employees rightfully attribute the organization’s success or failure to how the top leader leads.

While focusing on strengths is very worthwhile and profitable, leaders can’t reach peak effectiveness without taking a hard look at their weaknesses. A leader’s prominence in the organization automatically designates their strengths as assets. Alternatively, their weaknesses can be considered liabilities, blocking the organization from reaching its potential.

Although not a fond exercise, some of the most significant personal growth can come from understanding what behavior is blocking collective success. The best leaders make the decision to understand their liabilities, many of which they never notice. Turning them around to become assets will be the most valuable undertaking of their professional careers.

The Impact of Leadership Liabilities

Many leaders don’t recognize their liabilities or the detrimental effects they have on their organization. Every leader has weaknesses of some kind. The wisest are willing to learn about them and undo the damage they cause. After all, if the company struggles, the employees struggle, and this eventually comes full circle to cause the leader to struggle.

For the most part, leadership liabilities have to do with personality rather than a lack of technical skills or knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired with relative ease. Leaders can also rely on the expertise of people around them to cover their technical skill shortcomings. However, leaders can’t look to others to compensate for their personality shortcomings. Only the leader can address these.

Even when other co-leaders bring effective assets to the organization, an ineffective leader with liabilities can undo them, as leadership experts Robert Anderson and William Adams explain in Scaling Leadership: Building organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most (Wiley, 2019). They put it succinctly by stating that “leaders with liabilities simply get in their own way.”

Some leaders observe disappointing results and reason that they just need to work harder. They press more or put in longer hours to compensate for a perceived deficiency. This is rarely the solution. In fact, with an ineffective style or disruptive personality, working harder can exacerbate the liabilities. More of a bad thing is generally a worse thing.

Leaders who bring character or personality liabilities to their organizations see a variety of debilitating results. Diminished productivity, morale, unity, loyalty and progress are just a few of the outcomes. Ultimately, the organization is unsuccessful, and so is its leader.

Anderson and Adams point to three primary self-centric tendencies that cause leadership liabilities: disliking people, devaluing people and having emotional deficiencies.

Leaders Who Dislike People

It may seem like a contradiction, but some leaders don’t like people. Although they technically need others in order to run a team, they behave in ways that indicate they have no need for them. This proves to be a significant liability and it’s generally not difficult to spot.

Poor people skills are an indicator. Leaders who don’t treat people well signal their dislike for them. Common signs include not acknowledging others by initiating or returning a greeting, and being non-responsive to questions or comments. Adding arrogance or disrespect is a more blatant clue.

A leader’s liability is even more pronounced when they are critical of their employees, criticizing, condemning or insulting them. An argumentative character adds fuel to the fire, clearly displaying a dislike for people. This cuts peoples’ spirits and destroys their self-esteem. Morale and unity get crushed, sabotaging productivity and team effectiveness.

Anderson and Adams describe another way leaders display their dislike for people: being a poor team player. Unwilling to engage others, they rather work independently, keeping information to themselves. Withholding support may also be a way of avoiding contact, but it is a liability that handicaps the organization.

Pride plays a role in leaders who always believe they are right. The team’s position is not as important as that of the ego-driven leader who is never wrong. This throws up walls that block teamwork, and thus success. Employees have no tolerance for this kind of mindset and will express it with their feet.

A lack of follow-up is yet another way leaders reveal their dislike for people. This is often exhibited as a resistance to addressing difficult issues with employees: not wanting to hear their opinions or concerns. Not holding them accountable can be a way to avoid encounters. No one gets corrected, taught, instructed or challenged. This liability leads to disorganization and disruption. Rules and policies become meaningless and the company crumbles under its mismanagement.

When People are Devalued

A surprising number of workers claim that their supervisors don’t value them: that they are treated like subservient slaves. It is a significant reason why people quit their jobs. As a popular saying goes, people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses.

Leaders bring a serious liability to their organizations when they don’t treat their people well. Employees may be driven hard, given unrealistic expectations, buried in work that they have no way to accomplish, or go unforgiven for past mistakes. This is a signal that their needs are not considered important, that they have little value in the eyes of the leader.

Leaders who treat their people this way give the impression that obedience is the most important factor: they are to do or die, not to question why. Messengers of bad news get shot. There is little understanding or caring about the staff. Only the leader’s needs matter. It sounds harsh, but unfortunately is common.

This is a clear demonstration of devaluing people and it causes serious consequences. Above all else, people need to sense value to maintain self-worth, confidence and positivity to do their work. Devaluing people strips them of these critical aspects, while debilitating the productivity and longevity of the staff.

Micromanaging is yet another way leaders demonstrate a devaluing of their people. It stems from the leader’s belief that no one can match their high standards, so they must be over-guided to get things right. People are not considered competent or trustworthy enough. This devalues and demoralizes them, and creates a stinging liability.

Leaders who listen poorly devalue their people by indicating that they have nothing important to say, that they can’t contribute. A leader who is lost in their own thoughts signals that only their thoughts are significant. They live in their own little world, and none of their people are worthy of entering it. As communicator and author Andy Stanley puts it, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say.” That’s a serious liability.

When Leadership Emotions Take Over

Employees look to their leader to establish safety and trust. Leaders accomplish this in part with behavior that is rational, calm, logical and wise. They don’t get rattled by letting situations get the best of them.

Leaders who portray a solid, steadfast source of guidance and direction earn the trust of their people. The opposite is true for leaders who can’t control their emotions when the pressure hits. Employees question their security when their leader shows they’re not putting the team first.

Research conducted by Anderson and Adams reveals that leadership impatience is a common response to difficulty. Leaders who lack patience in tough situations release frustrations and resentments, showing an intolerance for something not going their way. It can be accompanied by anger and disrespect.

Impatience from a leader is a way of indicating that they believe something is wrong with their people. This is a damaging mindset, even if it’s momentary. People sense this and respond negatively. Leader impatience can also lead to taking shortcuts to make up for lost time, and that has its own set of potential consequences.

Anger and tirades are more serious behavioral problems indicating a lack of emotional control. Employees are put on high alert when the leader overreacts to bad news. People sense defeat and that can lead to depression, high stress and lower productivity. A leader with little emotional control is a liability to the organization.

Leaders can handicap their company by prioritizing their personal agenda over that of the company. When decisions are made favoring their personal gain rather than team accomplishment, the organization suffers. Protecting one’s image or turf can lead to lying, cheating, blame-shifting or credit-grabbing. It is damaging and is a liability to everyone.

Minimizing Liabilities

Since the most damaging leadership liabilities have to do with the inability to work well with their people, leaders benefit best by making effective relationships a priority. As Anderson and Adams point out, the greatest challenge in minimizing these kinds of liabilities is to find an optimal balance between a focus on tasks and relationships.

In essence, the best leaders have minimized personality-related liabilities by valuing others before self. This is easier said than done. First, it requires an understanding of your liabilities and character. A trusted confidant can offer a different perspective and help you take a deeper look. This may be a close colleague or better yet, a qualified executive coach who has an impartial mindset.

Listen to those who can honestly counsel you and frankly describe what they see in you. They are helping you; be thankful for it. With this new knowledge, work to undo some of the behavior that threatens the unity within the ranks. Your people are not assets to be used merely for the sake of getting work done. They are your partners joining together to support your cause, wanting to succeed together. They want you to succeed as well.

Being mindful of this is the best way to develop appreciation for your people and show them that they are valued. You need to be valued, and so do they. Give yourself a mission every day to add value to them and watch the unity grow. This is the major difference between leaders who overcome liabilities and those who don’t.

If your behavior reflects honesty, authenticity and transparency, your people will see that you care about them and much of the damage caused by your liabilities can be reversed. Respect for your people will be returned multi-fold. Engage your people with enthusiasm and encouragement and you’ll be amazed at how they respond. Let go of control and see how well they grow and develop.

Your leadership liabilities are dependent on your outlook—your attitude. Are you willing to put in the effort to turn it around? Relying on the expertise of a seasoned leadership coach can get you off to a great start.