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Leadership Thought #374 – Implementing Change Is Hard

June 22, 2012

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Leadership is all about change management:

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as the leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.’ – Niccolò Machiavelli

The simple fact is that introducing organizational change is hard and there is often a low probability of success.  Most people do not like change.  They prefer what they know to what they don’t know.  There is always an element of fear when you are dealing with uncertainty.  For some reason, our first reaction is that we will end up losing something or end up being worse off.  Our defensive mechanisms kick-in and we resist “the new order of things.”

A leader’s job is to understand this reality and manage it accordingly.  Instead of being frustrated or angry when people “don’t get it,” we need to be more patient and deliberate in our approach.   If resistance is normal, then we need to work to understand why people are resisting.  Typically, they believe their future will be less desirable than their present situation.  All they see is more work, more stress, less stability, less security, greater risk, and enhanced vulnerability.  Each of these concerns must be discussed and addressed.  As a leader, you need to clearly and consistently paint a picture of the future which is both positive and achievable.  You need to connect the dots for your people and show them how they will benefit rather than lose because of what’s happening.

You also need to appreciate that while you have typically been incubating this change in your mind for some time and had many conversations with your key people about it, the typical employee hasn’t had this time for the idea to crystallize and set in.  They haven’t looked at the data and weighed the assorted options.  They don’t understand the implications of not changing.  Since they have not been included in the design, they naturally doubt the plan.  Instead of becoming annoyed or defensive, use this as an opportunity to educate them about the change and solicit their feedback on how to best navigate the transition.

Some leaders like to take a dictatorial approach to change management.  Their mindset is basically “it’s my way or the highway.”  They believe you whip the horse to the finish line and when the horse breaks down you just get another one.  My response is good luck with that.  Most dictators meet the same fate.  People either overtly or covertly turn on them and eventually create their own new order, one that doesn’t include that leader.  It’s amazing what a small group of dedicated people can accomplish when they are properly engaged and motivated.  I’ve also seen that same group of people stop change dead in its tracks.  Sadly, I see a lot more of the latter than the former due to flawed leadership.