Thoughtful Change Leadership; When Communication is Not Enough
by Tracy P Crane MBA

Organisational Change – The Theory

Relentless change is a reality of life and is certainly a fundamental element of the leadership of any organisation. The industrial revolution generated the ‘thinkers’ who set about researching and developing ideas about organisational change to improve processes and efficiency. The foundations laid by those early theoretical discussions, led to new models for ‘doing’ change throughout the 1980s and 1990s . Building on these came the ‘trademarks’, where new organisations were built around products to deliver change methodically and formulaically . More recently the concept of Enterprise Change Management attempts to bring a more holistic approach to organisational change. This brings a shift from project-by-project distributed change, to better strategic co-ordination, combined with capability building. One might expect with this wealth of available learning, development, tools and methodologies, organisations would simply select the approach they prefer and successfully deliver the intended benefits and outcomes of their planned change.

But no. Research shows that more change programmes end in failure than success . Why?

Why Change Programmes Fail

Overwhelmingly, the evidence points to one thing: human emotion. Take a look at the annual publication from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which considers the impact of stress, depression and anxiety in the workplace .

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety continues to represent a significant ill health condition in the workforce of Great Britain. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost, in 2018/19. The occupations and industries reporting the highest rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety remain consistently in the health and public sectors of the economy. The reasons cited as causes of work-related stress are also consistent over time with workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change as the primary causative factors”.  (emphasis added)

Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain; Health and Safety Executive October 2019

Leaders of change know the importance of securing the support and ‘buy-in’ of the people throughout the organisation upon whom there is a reliance to adapt and adopt new things to achieve goals and outcomes. However, staff engagement and communication become synonymous with ‘reducing resistance’, which is where frustrations begin to emerge, for both the leaders, and those who are affected by the proposed change. As time goes on, uncertainty and tension grow. Those affected by proposed change perceive a lack of influence or control, leading to disharmony, disengagement, disruption and ultimately illness and attrition as evidenced by the HSE publications. There is a human cost and a clear financial cost of getting this wrong.

Of course, this is not news; just type ‘why do change programmes fail?’ into your search engine. The challenge for those responsible and accountable for wise investment of scarce resources to improve things (because no-one changes things for the sake of change, right?) is to work out what to do about it.

Communication is Not Enough!

Telling people what you are doing and why is an important step. Answering questions, whether in-person or using wider broadcast media is also important. But it will never be enough. True engagement requires thoughtful change leadership. When contemplating significant change, thoughtful leaders set out from the very start to enable those upon whom the organisation relies for adoption and adaptation to have genuine influence and control over the intended changes. And crucially, when there is no choice or room for debate, they say so.

Steps to Thoughtful Change Leadership

Here are seven key questions that demonstrate thoughtful change leadership:

  • How well, and how easily can you describe what needs to change and why in a way that each recipient can understand in their own working environment?
  • Do you fully understand who will be affected, and to what extent, in every context at every level? How can you check?
  • Do you know what else is affecting those people and your ability to get their attention, ensure their engagement, yet not overburden them with the cumulative effect of multiple change challenges? What else is happening in their world?
  • Are you prepared to meet your stakeholders, understand their point of view and listen actively before you commit to your plans for change?
  • Carefully consider the most appropriate change approach* to adopt. This is critical. Never imply stakeholders have influence if they don’t. If the decision is made about what, why and how, say so.  And it helps to avoid the language of ‘consultation’. People may perceive threat here as it invokes assumptions about HR processes associated with job losses.  Threat = emotional response.
  • How can you ensure that all those to whom you delegate responsibilities for delivering the planned changes understand and also adopt your intended approach, to avoid the confusion of mixed messages, and enable appropriate levels of engagement, influence and control? Where are your middle managers?  They are critical filters.
  • Do you trust and empower your subject matter experts, those who really understand the business context for your planned changes? Are you seen to have faith in them, so others believe in them too? These, along with tiers of middle management are crucial channels of engagement and mutual understanding.

*Education and delegation, participation, collaboration, direction, coercion

Whether the change is locally led by a team leader looking to change how the team works to meet their own goals, or strategically led by a senior team investing millions and employing outstanding project capabilities to deliver transformational change, the application of these elements of thoughtful change leadership takes time, effort and commitment for already busy leaders. Nevertheless, that investment can make all the difference to the outcomes and the realisation of intended benefits.

In Conclusion

Change efforts do not fail because of the process of implementation, they fail because the emphasis on ‘on time and on budget’ obscures the emotional and psychological impact on people. Thoughtful change leadership can bring the people back into focus.

For support with change leadership please get in touch.