Leading in uncertain times



Change, dealing with resistance to change and leading teams through change is an issue leaders and managers face on a daily basis.

There are always the questions:

  • Are we pushing too hard?

  • Are we not pushing hard enough?

  • Is the resistance telling me something is wrong with the proposed direction?

  • Is the resistance telling me something is right and people are just freaking out?

The response – there is always free will in all that we do. And that means people have the ultimate choice to change or not. Organisations need to choose a certain direction or course of action. The difficulty is when the direction of staff and the organisation is not aligned. This alignment is why having people be part of the conversation is so critical. We are more likely to resist something we don’t understand or don't feel in control of, and so the more people are included in building or understanding, the easier it is to accept. In essence we all need a chance to ‘join the dots’. Dr William Bridges' work makes the point that organisations do change okay but often fail in managing the transition. The change is about the practical, structural and functional aspects, while the transition is about aligning the people to that structure and direction. ‘Build it and they will come’ is an inspirational ideal but if we have not included people in the design and they don't like what has been built, then the transition will be much more complicated. In a recent project an organisation invested heavily in ‘having people part of the conversation’. The organisation had come from a period of very autocratic management and had become insular and stuck in this way of working. There was no doubt that practices and attitudes needed to change. But rather than force the change, we made the change the topic of the conversation. We met in smaller groups in different offices to hear first-hand what they liked, didn’t like and envisaged for the future. The views were not always aligned but they were now in the open. We then worked with a staff reference group of people from across the organisation (senior and junior alike) to connect people at all levels and rebuild the lines of communication. This group was tasked with ‘making sense’ of the feedback, prioritising ideas and developing a blueprint for the way forward.

The blueprint wasn't a ‘nirvana’-like image for the future but laid out some real challenges, that were going to require change at every level of the organisation. The process is not complete by any stretch but within 12 months productivity had risen by 10% in the metro and 20% in the regional centres.

So how can this be, how can people get motivated to deal with change?

Because they were part of the conversation.

They saw the same issues management saw and they also wanted to be part of a productive enironment. Staff members were interested in doing a good job and the frustrations expressed were about how the systems were obstructing this. People are working more closely together now and the change has not stopped; some people have moved on and the organisation feels much more vital today than before. Of course, if the conversations stopped, then it could all go backwards. And if the conversations glossed over what wasn't working then people would have only paid lip service to the resulting plan. I am finding more and more that people hate being unproductive; they might not admit it at first, they might even defend it, but this organisation is succeeding at leading change – by bringing people along with them.