Ten Failures of a Leader: Change Management Is Not a Critical Skill (#9)

The key to change…is to let go of fear.

Rosanne Cash

Change is part of every person’s life.  The very nature of the progression of life involves change and for many of us a certain level of discomfort.  Human nature is such that we grasp on to patterns (good or bad) and become comfortable when we have standard repetition.  When we deal with change, most of us develop a certain level of stress.  Research has shown that stress impacts health, personal relationships, and productivity. In the workplace, high levels of change instigated stress increases turnover, interpersonal conflict, and absenteeism.

As a leader, being able to formulate and execute successful change is critical to job success.  However, a leader has a dual duty of personally accepting the change as well as assisting others with the transition. Similarly, the leader has to deal with his or her stress and the stress associated with others.  This double impact makes some leaders very hesitant to embrace change.

Here a short quiz to assess the level of your change management skills:

1.       What emotion do I feel when there are major changes at work? (excitement, despair, or uncertainty)

2.       When I am asked to initiate change, what do I do first? (panic, plan, or act)

3.       How do I handle concerns with the change process from employees? (ignore it, give it lip service, or communicate honestly and frequently)

4.       How would you handle a lack of executive sponsorship if you were responsible for change management? (give up, complain, or make a better case)

5.       If employees don’t want the change to occur, what would I do? (marginalize them, argue with them, or educate them more to the merits of the process)

Most of us know the right answers to the above questions even if we do not always practice them.  If you answered and practice (excitement, communicate, make a better case, educate), then you have many of the basic skills necessary to be successful at change management.

Several years ago I worked with a large organization that was in the process of automating about 95 percent of their transactional processes.  The organization had invested approximately $10 million and made the successful development and deployment of the new tool a chief priority.  Toward the end of the project, I met with the project sponsor and asked her about their progress.  She started off very positive until I asked her about what the organization would look like after implementation.  She paused, looked away, and said that there were some problems.  As I delved deeper, she revealed that with all of the changes and hard work people put into the project, they had decided they would let the current team stay.  I asked her how the executive team was taking that and she brightened and said it was their idea.  She told me that the executive team really had their hands full, wanted to avoid conflict, and saw any outcomes beside completion as being supplemental.  As a result, a project that was designed to eliminate almost $500,000 a year in reoccurring costs resulted in a net increase of almost $200,000 in new cost and faster transactions.

Over the last several years, I have worked with a variety of leaders that made similar decisions and implemented the easiest portions of their change agenda.  When asking these leaders the reasons for selecting this path, three primary justifications were the most prevalent:

  • I don’t really believe in the change
  • I don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand
  • Change is healthy and it will work itself out

I don’t really believe in the change

A key part of successful change is having an executive sponsor coupled with as much organization buy-in as possible.  As a result, one of the biggest reasons for change failure is a lack of support among managers.  Some of the most common reasons for a lack of support include leadership fatigue, competing priorities, political conflicts, professional differences of opinion, or a lack of practical change management knowledge.  The last reason is of particular interest since it is the most preventable.  A common explanation I have heard over the years is that leaders fail to develop change management skills due to a belief that if something is favorable in the leader’s mind, passion alone will drive the process.  In cases where the change is not supported, then skills necessary for success are irrelevant.  Most of us as leaders have to support change we don’t agree with and we need the skills necessary to be successful.

I don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand

As discussed in a few of the Failures of a Leader posts, time is a scarce commodity for a leader.  As the leader attempts to balance the competing demands of the workplace, some things are relegated to less important status.  A common statement I hear in organizations working to deal with change is that “I don’t have time” to deal with all the education, anxiety, and emotions that accompany change among my staff.  Most of us as leaders underestimate the influence we can have on staff by listening, acknowledging, reducing stress.  Research has shown that after coaching, listening and acknowledging or expressing empathy is one of the most important personal characteristics that a leader can have. “Holding everyone’s hand” is necessary if that is what it takes to move everyone forward.

Change is healthy and it will work itself out

Another common point of view is that change is a part of life and it will work itself out.  This organic explanation might make sense when considering very simple changes, but rarely corresponds to reality when attempting to accomplish change in an organization.  Most of what we create attempts to resist change and this inertia can prevent things from “working itself out.” How many of us as leaders would accept from our employees the explanation that their tasks are going to “work itself out” or that there was not a lot they could do to make something successful.

Managing successful change is a critical part of a leader’s job.   We have to own the change, support the process, and dedicate ourselves to realizing the associated outcomes.  How do we do this? We have to develop the skills necessary to do the following:

  • Develop a clear plan and objectives;
  • Gain organizational support for the change;
  • Offer strong and frequent communication;
  • Gain visible and complete support by leadership; and
  • Educate employees and gain their involvement.
This entry was posted in HR Operations, Leadership, Organizations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.