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.