How much leadership is right during Change?

This month I joined my colleague Meg Salter at a workshop on change management for HRPA members. Several of the attendees had questions about the role of their business leaders during change. Frankly, the challenge for HR professionals is often that leaders are too involved, or are not involved enough, in the change effort. So this month I’m talking about what research says about change leadership and I’ll share some ideas on how to find just the right balance.

Leadership, many would argue, is distinguished from management by its focus on initiating and implementing change. While researchers theoretically separate an emergent, organic approach and a planned approach to change, I’ve found that organizations benefit from a blended approach, taking into account the culture and readiness for the change. Your change interventions may be recommended by a project team (targeting processes) and your HR department (targeting people), but leading the change requires something special of you.

1. Decide early what won’t change. Sometimes in the excitement of a change, there is an urge to cut loose from everything that represents the status quo. While there is excitement and stimulation in breaking free, leaders need to discern what their organization is ready for. It’s true that change efforts find their beginning in creating tension and destabilization. But by anchoring the changes in something familiar, you make it psychologically safe to innovate and try something new. Many leaders take care to frame the changes in terms of how they support and align to long-held values. Talk about what is not being abandoned. If you are interested in supporting emergent changes, set the boundaries of the playing field to open up lots of possibilities for imaginative change. Your job here is to create the space from which the unpredictable can emerge.

2. Get in up to your elbows. All change requires actual intervention into the human dynamics of your organization, and at-arms-length, objective leadership will not work. Using working teams at the implementation level is quite common. If you’re a sponsor of the change, make time to attend working group meetings, and to have casual drop-in conversations with staff at all levels. Your organization is a complex and constantly adapting system, which doesn’t stand still during change planning and implementation. All leaders need to increase their networks and access to communication, or what shifts beneath you will go unnoticed before it’s too late.

3. Be positive about the unknown future. Once you have created a compelling reason for the change, be sure that others see your enthusiasm for the future. Sometimes you are able to describe a compelling vision, with concrete deliverables and milestones along the way. At other times, the future will be less clear. Focus then on higher-order core values, and a few simple rules that will guide behaviour and decisions when things get foggy. Whatever works best, your role is to encourage people that what they are losing today will be worth it tomorrow. Find the words that are an authentic expression of your hope.

4. Encourage participative processes. It’s easier to try new things and act differently when you’re not alone. Emphasize the interdependency of your work and increase opportunities to participate. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “too many cooks ruin the soup”. Yes, you should clarify accountabilities for decisions, and once that is done ask the decision-makers to inform, consult and generally stay engaged in the system as they decide. Many changes have failed because the project team developed their solutions in isolation and then handed it over. You may think you are protecting people from the noise of the change, but you are actually robbing them of early engagement and increased ownership to its success.

5. Balance tension with support. Proponents of planned change say leaders should remove barriers so the change can march on. Emergent change advocates say that leaders should create more tension and escalate natural conflicts. I’d say do both. Learn to facilitate conversations that are tough and where dissension is predictable. Act as a “sense maker” when diversity threatens alignment, and ensure that no one is humiliated in the name of progress.

6. Ask for personal feedback. Research into decision-making has uncovered an array of biases that are almost impossible to avoid. These include inappropriate self-interest, relying on misleading experience and making judgments based on emotional tags. Leaders of change may think that times of uncertainty and crisis are when they need to stand strong and confident in their decisions. Find a trusted advisor that you can test your assumptions and perceptions with. HR partners are ideal coaches as they bring sensitivities to these areas.

Need help figuring out how you want to lead the change? Jill Malleck, Epiphany at Work and Meg Salter ( are experienced OD consultants and Integral Coaches™ ready to support you and your team to accelerate positive change. Send us a note.

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