It’s no secret that being a leader in today’s dynamic organizational environment is more of a challenge than ever before. There are many reasons behind this fact, one of the most relevant being the constant need to navigate change and incorporate technological developments in the workplace.
Read more: Making new tech accessible in your company
But apart from dealing with change that happens outside the business, leaders often find themselves in the position of making change happen within their teams – and this is even more difficult than finding ways to adjust to external factors.
People are naturally averse to modifying their set ways – it is not comfortable to find new paths and go through a trial and error process in order to find out what works and what does not. It’s even more daunting when you have to do so quite frequently.
Researchers Jack Zengler and Joseph Folkman looked into this issue. In doing so they reviewed a dataset of no less than 2,852 direct reports of 559 leaders. These people were asked to rate managers on 49 behaviors and also assess the leaders on their effectiveness at leading change – specifically, the managers’ ability to influence their teams to move in the direction the organization needed to go. Once this was done, they analyzed those who came through with the highest and lowest ratings and compared them against all the behaviors that were measured.
This way they found what type of behaviors are helpful when it comes to inspiring change and what are of little use if not altogether detrimental when it comes to steering people in a different direction.
What doesn’t work
It just so happens that the two main ‘useless’ behaviors that leaders exhibit when they try to bring about change are ones that may very well be quite praised in any other area of personal or professional life.
The first is being nice.
Communicating in a warm, positive way with an emphasis on minding people’s feelings does in no way help when it comes to bringing about change. Being firm and assertive goes a much longer way.
The second behavior that is on the ‘don’ts’ list has to do with incessant communication by means of suggestions, advice, and requests.
This is perceived as nagging and as a result, comes off as awfully annoying to people already struggling with the stress of having to change.
So the best advice for leaders is: don’t over-communicate and struggle to make everything sound like rainbows and butterflies.
Inspire instead of micromanaging
Now that we have covered what not to do, it’s time to take a look at the behaviors that proved effective in facilitating change. Of course, it’s legitimate to ask yourself how precisely you can prove to be inspiring (most often this sounds like something you are either born with or don’t possess at all).
One way your team might find you inspirational is if you work with them – both together and at an individual level, to find out more accurately what their goals and aspirations are. As Zenger and Folkman say "Inspiring leaders understand the need for making an emotional connection with colleagues. They want to provoke a sense of desire rather than fear. Another approach in many work situations is to make a compelling, rational connection with the individual in which we explain the logic for the change we want them to make."
Prove your judgment is sound
At the beginning of Toy Story, the characters face the prospect of a very big change – new toys arriving in the room as a result of the kid’s birthday. Their leader, Woody, tries to assuage their fears but most are still very nervous, as they fear they will end up in a garage sale. At that point one of them (Slinky the dog) says “I trust Woody, he has never steered us wrong before”.
All leaders who seek to bring about change in an organization should have people think of them in the lines of that springy dog’s wisdom.
As the researcher mentioned above said about successful leaders: "(…) because of their ability to build trust in the decisions they make, their ability to change the organization skyrockets. If others do not trust your judgment it will be difficult to get them to make the changes you want them to make."
Make collective goals your aim
People will follow the sinuous road of change if they feel that at the end of it there will be some reward that is worth it. However, since the goal of leaders is to achieve transformations throughout the organization and not just at the individual levels of employees it is important for them to identify those objectives that will motivate entire teams.
"Change initiatives work best when everyone's sight is fixed on the same goal," Zenger and Folkman write. "Therefore, the most productive discussions about any change being proposed are those that start with the strategy that it serves." This is probably as difficult as proving to be inspiring but it is paramount to find that common thing that everyone feels is worthy of pain and effort – because that is without a doubt what is asked of them.
Have the courage to challenge organizational ‘commandments’
If change is required, the old ways (or at least some of them) are no longer working. Every organization has its own policies and practices set in place. They probably worked very well for a long time and that’s why there may be quite a few decision-makers who cling to them without question.
Leaders who have the ability to make change happen also have the guts to go against such old rules and regulations if they are proven to hold things in one place instead of driving forward.
Zenger and Folkman call these rules that are almost revered by everybody in the organization “sacred cows” and state that "leaders who excel at driving change will challenge even the rules that seem carved in stone." Change requires no small amount of courage and those who want to champion it, need to be truly and openly brave.
All in all
Change is not just an intrinsic part of life, it is painfully necessary more often than we feel comfortable with. It’s even more difficult when transformation has to be achieved in the workplace and people need to rally together in order to make it happen. However, if leaders prove brave, trustworthy, and with a sound vision, the positive results will not be tardy.