The authors suggest considerations that should be looked at when undergoing organisational change.
Much of what is written about organisational change isn’t very helpful in real life, either because it’s too narrow, or simply because the field of change is shifting so fast. For this reason, we make it a point to pause ever so often and reflect on a short list of considerations that really matter in change—and that are available nowhere else. This article is written in that spirit.
The goal of this article is modest: to help you take the next step in performing change better. The vehicle that we use is a small set of our observations. These observations flow from our experiences with organisational change around the world—and also from our ongoing study. In our discussion, we try to provide sufficient references for you to explore a given observation in more detail. We hope our observations are helpful.
The discussion that follows will center on four specific observations. These are not our only observations—but seemed relevant for discussion here:
- Change leadership means more than the C-suite;
- Great change honours core values; and
- Human resistance to change is not psychological—its physiological.
Each observation will be discussed in more detail.
Change Leadership Means More Than the C-suite
Many formulas for successful organisational change highlight the importance of participation by the C-suite. Although this involvement is important, our experience indicates that most change programmes live or die on the line. In times of organisational change, people look to their front-line supervisors to: help them understand the change and their role in it; position them for maximum career development, and to protect them if necessary. For these reasons, successful change efforts demand a new set of skills for front-line supervisors. Here are four actions that can help you manage people better during change. Although we note them in the context of frontline supervisors, we believe they are important considerations for all leaders during change.
- Put yourself “in the middle.”
Leaders should position themselves between the chaos of change and their people. Engaging leaders use their experience, insight, and knowledge of the organisation’s business and culture to help people make sense of changes and to better participate in them.
- Invest in your people.
Leaders should personally invest more effort in talent development during periods of high change. By doing this, engaging leaders use change as a medium for accelerating the professional development of the workforce.
- Focus on a higher purpose.
In times of uncertainty, engaging leaders use higher purpose to keep people focussed on their ability to shape the future of the organisation and the world.
- Leave no one behind.
“False urgency” is a phrase we use to describe a phenomenon that can sometimes damage change efforts. 1 False urgency occurs when change anxiety becomes so high that fear takes over and the only thing that matters is staying on schedule. Suddenly, there is “just no time” for things like human development and engagement, and the workforce is left behind. Engaging leaders refuse false urgency and stay focussed on people when the stakes are highest.
We believe that when leaders take the above actions, people are able to stay more positive, focussed, and engaged during periods of change. An event that was perceived as a personal threat can be reframed as an opportunity for personal development—and to shape the future of the organisation.
However, in spite of the obvious value of building the above skills into the supervisory workforce organisations have been slow to implement changes in how supervisors are developed. In our experience, leadership development activities for front-line supervisors are often more transactional than transformational. By this we mean that the curriculum for supervisor development focusses more on building technical skills than on building the higher level capabilities needed to develop and engage people. Said simply, many current leadership development programs do not adequately prepare supervisors to lead effectively during change.
It may be time to take a careful look at the curriculum your organisation uses to train front-line supervisors.
Great Change Honours Core Values
Many change approaches rightly note the importance of aligning all organisational change efforts with an organisation’s strategy. In fact, change is a leading way for an organisation to realign itself to better achieve its strategy. In our experience, organisations do a fair job of linking change efforts to their overall strategy. Where they struggle is in linking change efforts to their overall core values.
Collins and Porras 2 known widely for their book Build to Last define core values thusly:
“Core values are the handful of beliefs, guiding principles or tenets that are absolutely non-negotiable within an organisation. Imagine your own personal values: it may be that, in relationships, honesty, integrity, and kindness are important to you; you may value courage, fearlessness, and daring; or how about fun, humour and happiness? When you contemplate your personal values,
you usually have a sense of what is truly important to you—the characteristics that you couldn’t live without.
For Collins and Porras, organisational core values are the same—they are as natural as breathing.”
From the perspective of Collins and Porras “core” means that a value is “so fundamental and deeply held that [it] will change seldom, if ever.” Core values so define who the organisation is that no change effort should change or ignore them. Indeed, core values should guide how change efforts are conducted.
Suppose one of your organisation’s core values is “putting the care and development of people first.” Now suppose that your organisation is facing an unexpected, crucial, and large scale change effort that will decide the organisation’s future. In spite of the importance, pressure, and urgency of the change effort, should the core values be honoured? What are the implications if they are not?
When your organisation conducts any change effort in line with the core values, your workforce is given a foundation to stand on and trust in. The workforce doesn’t lose sight of who the organisation is, was, and will be. When your organisation ignores or undermines the core values during change, that foundation is lost along with workforce trust. The change effort is at risk—as well as the organisation itself.
We believe that your organisation must plan and conduct all change efforts in line with its core values. Use each change efforts to reaffirm who your organisation is.
Human Resistance to Change is not Psychological—it’s Physiological
Why do people resist organisational changes—even relatively minor ones—so intensely? As Thompson and Luthans noted 25 years ago:
“... a person’s reaction to change can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organisation than to try to change an existing one.” 3
This phenomena—often referred to as “human resistance to change”—has been one of the most persistent problems in the field of organisational change and is a key ingredient in unlocking higher levels of human and organisational performance. 4
What does it take to engage the energy, creativity, and expertise of the workforce when these qualities are most needed? Because human resistance to change is not well understood, people can default to explanations that are negative and even fatalistic. In practice, we have noted suggestions that human resistance is about laziness, stubbornness, or bad intentions. Some executives have told us that human resistance is an unfortunate fact of organisational life—an unsolvable problem that is always an impediment to progress.
We disagree, and so do some neuroscientists who are now asserting that human resistance to change is not just understandable but normal—and has its basis in the biology of the brain. 5 They point out that being wary of environmental changes has been a successful strategy for survival used by the brain for millions of years. Just as environmental changes thousands of years ago could threaten our physical survival; changes in modern organisations can threaten our professional survival. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the brain remains wary of organisational change.
If these neuroscientists are correct, the brain may be a critical and overlooked stakeholder in organisational change—and one able to inform how to better engage the workforce during change efforts. Several ideas are particularly relevant in rethinking the phenomena of human resistance in organisational change:
- The brain is focussed on survival. As Mobbs noted: “Our brains have evolved to detect biologically salient stimuli and to optimally pursue a course of action.” 5 Said another way, evolution has shown that changes in the environment can threaten survival. For this reason, our brains constantly monitor the environment to detect and respond to potential threats. Because the brain links environmental changes to survival threats—it reacts to even relatively minor changes;
- The brain is “hard-wired” to avoid organisational change. As Kleiner said [of the brain] “change is pain.” 6 Environmental changes—such as large-scale organisational change efforts—can be detected by the brain as threats to survival and elicit retreating behavior which manifests as resistance to change. 5 From the brain’s perspective, avoiding change is a key survival skill;
- The brain can learn to seek organisational change. This suggests that a key goal for change leaders is not trying to convince the brain that change is good but rather to help the brain reframe change as something to seek vice avoid. We believe that talent development is particularly useful here. By reframing change efforts as opportunities for accelerated talent development, change leaders may be better able “[…] to minimise engagement of the brain’s aversive (avoiding) system and attempt to best engage the motivational (seeking) system; ” 5
- The actions of leaders are critical in reframing change as non-threatening. The idea is that because the brain keys on actual changes in the work environment, leaders’ actions that positively shape the environment help the brain reframe change as non-threatening. 7 One such action may be actively focusing on talent development during change;
- Using organisational change efforts as opportunities for increased—and personalised—talent development may help engage the brain. We believe this is most successful when organisational change leaders are actively and personally engaged in the development of their teams; and
- Integrating talent development is not the only way to help employees reframe change as desirable, but it is a great one because it provides at least two things that employees want: increased emphasis on self-development and focussed attention from their supervisor.
We have suggested that your organisation should focus resources on reshaping its training curriculum for front-line supervisors; should honour its core values in every change effort; and should stop fearing human resistance to change and see it as a normal reaction of the brain. These considerations can add real change power.
Ms Goldsworthy and Mr McFarland are co-authors of the award-winning book—Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time.
1 McFarland W and S Goldsworthy, 2013, Choosing change. New York: McGraw Hill. 238.
2 Collins J C and T J Porras, 1995, Building your company’s vision. Harvard Business Review. 96501: pg. 65-77.
3 Thompson K R and F Luthans, 1994, Organizational culture: a behavioral perspective, in organizational climate and culture, B. Schneider, Editor. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
4 McFarland W and D Jestaz, 2016, Talent development in the digital age. industrial and commerical training, 2016. 48(2): pg. 74-79.
5 Mobbs D and W McFarland, 2013, The neuroscience of motivation, in the handbook of neuroleadership, A H Ringleb and D Rock, Editors. Neuroleadership Institute: USA.
6 Kleiner A, 2011, The neuroscience of leadership, The Alia Institute
7 Rock D and Y Y Tang, 2009 (2), Neuroscience of engagement. NeuroLeadership Journal.
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