Years before I began researching, writing and speaking on body language and leadership presence, I researched, wrote, and spoke on change leadership. This article reflects the seven biggest mistakes I discovered then. Take a look and see how many of these mistakes are still being made today:
- Not understanding the importance of people. Most large-scale change fails—not because of strategy, but because of the “human dimension.”
- Lesson learned: Organizations don’t change. People do—or they don’t. If employees don’t trust leadership, don’t share the organization’s vision, don’t buy into the reason for change, and aren’t included in the planning—there will be no successful change—regardless of how brilliant the strategy.
- Not appreciating that people throughout the organization have different reactions to change.
- Lesson learned: Some people are naturally more “change-adept.” Change-adept people move with today’s chaotic workplace, rather than fighting it. The change-adept are not necessarily more competent than their co-workers, but they have distinct advantages in the attitudes they hold and the strategies they adopt. Change-adept professionals build greater resilience to not only survive, but flourish in changing times. We need to spot and encourage the early adaptors—and we need to develop change-adept employee profiles to better understand how to develop these qualities throughout the organization.
- Treating transformation as an event, rather than a mental, physical and emotional process. Lacking “emotional literacy”, we disregard the wrenching emotional process of large-scale change—and when we began to address the emotional component, we underestimated its depth.
- Lesson learned: Large-scale change usually triggers emotional reactions—denial, negativity, choice, tentative acceptance, commitment. Leadership can either facilitate this emotional process or ignore it—at the peril of the transformation effort.
- Being less than candid. Under the rationale of “protecting” people, we tend to present change with a too positive “spin.” And the more we “sugar-coat” the truth, the wider the trust gap between management and the work force.
- Lesson learned: Communicate openly and honestly. Today’s employees are demanding it. Open and honest communication goes beyond simply telling the truth when it’s advantageous. You need a proactive, even aggressive, sharing of everything—the opportunities, the risks, the mistakes, the potentials, the failures—and then inviting people in to work on these challenges together.
- Not appropriately “setting the stage” for change. All too often, change is announced in an environmental vacuum, with little reason or rationale for what the organization is trying to accomplish and how this change fits into the corporate vision.
- Lesson learned: To prepare employees for success, we must give them pertinent information about demographic, global, economic, technological, competitive, and industry trends. People need to know the vision, goals, and strategy of the company. They need to understand the financial reality of the business and how their actions impact that reality.
- Trying to manage transformation with the same strategies used for incremental change.
- Lesson learned: Incremental change—continuous improvement, etc.—is linear, predictable, logical, and based on a progressive acceleration of past performance. Transformation is none of these things. Transformation is a redefinition of who we are and what we do. It’s often unpredictable (responding to unforeseen circumstances, challenges and opportunities), illogical (demanding people and organizations change when they are the most successful), and most importantly, in a transformative change, our past success is not a valid indicator of future success. In fact, our past success may be our greatest obstacle.
- Believing that change is what employees heard or read from corporate headquarters.From an employee’s perspective, the kind of communication that impacts behavior comes from about 10 percent “traditional” vehicles (speeches, newsletters, corporate videos, values statements, intranet postings etc.), 45 percent organizational structure (whatever punishes or rewards) and 45 percent management behavior.
- Lesson learned: Organizations send two concurrent sets of messages about change. A communication strategy that is not congruent with organizational systems and the actions of leadership is useless. Corporate leaders are beginning to learn the importance of behavior-based communication as a requirement for leading discontinuous change. For today’s skeptical employee audience, rhetoric without action quickly disintegrates into empty slogans and company propaganda. In the words of one successful change leader, “What I do in the hallway is more powerful than anything I say in the meeting room.”
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