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Leading Organizational Change

“The reorganization is failing miserably. I guess the change management didn’t work,” the executive said and put his head in his hands. We sat in his office below his diplomas, one Harvard, one Wharton. In the corner was a picture of him ten years ago, as captain of a winning hockey team. He had all the equipment for leadership.

“Our engagement survey plummeted by ten points. The consultant said that was a record. The bad kind.”

He looked at me. “Well, you’re the coach, what should I do?”

“First, change management almost always fails. And you’ve focused on the wrong things. It seems like your employees are in a pretty bad mood.” I paused, “How do you like my advice so far?”

“It’s scary how accurate it is.”

Managing change has a way of showing the savviest leader how little they know about leadership. Over the last decade, I’ve worked with thousands of people experiencing change. Some of these shifts they initiated and planned, while others felt like organizational eminent domain. In any case, the essentials of leading others through it were the same. Change is funny that way.

My experiences have led me to use the following questions as a framework for helping executives lead change.

What is the bigger picture?
Change has a sneaky way of narrowing our vision. Literally. When we are anxious, our emotional brains take over and the primary goal is safety. We hunker down and avoid risks. This is the neurochemistry of change. It is not immutable, however. As a leader, we can help people take a bigger view, to understand how the change fits into the organization’s life cycle. We can articulate the problem we’re solving. I asked my client how much time he’d spent explaining the problems the organization faced causing the reorganization.

“I limited that to zero,” he said. “Too negative. We focused on bottom-line savings we’d get by merging departments.” This communication wasn’t just the first act. This was it. The approach is tempting, but short circuits a general acceptance of why changes are necessary.

Understanding the way change fits into the bigger picture and makes sense at a particular moment in time can help provide footing for employees.

There are several reasons for this. Information allows us to predict what will transpire and prediction gives a sense of control. Leaders tend to do well with the left-foot-right-foot-logistics of the change, but gloss over the rationale for them. As a result, employees confuse the problem with the solution. (Hint: the change is the solution to the problem.)

This is the time to take half a step backwards and explain the factors that led us from there to here. Leaders may forget that they’ve had more time and information to get used to what’s happening and are further ahead in the developmental curve.

How can I improve the organizational mood?
Mood is like background music and it flavors everything we feel and perceive. In most organizations, the unrelenting change leaves employees anxious and the music sounds like Taps. It’s the time when stressed employees hear the executives tout the, “GREAT CHANGES!” with enthusiasm that borders on mania and wonder what all the happy leaders

are happy about. They want to believe, but have lost their belief in believing. The important thing to remember is that mood will color every reaction we have.

Research shows that positive feelings generate creativity, appropriate risk taking and optimism about the future. In other words, calm people respond calmly. Consider this study: Researchers dropped dollar bills around a shopping mall and noted the people that found them. The first thing they discovered is that it makes us very happy to find a dollar. The second thing they found is that improving mood alters our assumptions about serious topics. It alters views we think of as stable.

In the dollar study the researchers tracked down these people and a random set of others (the non-dollar finders) asking how likely it is that our country will engage in a war in the next decade. What they found confirmed the lift we get from happiness: The money finders were significantly likelier to predict national peace.

Creating a good organizational mood shifts the way employees approach our solution. Like the dollar finders, happy people assume positive intent, take action, and are more productive. Creating a strong organizational mood is not achieved by launching a survey. This confuses the tools of engagement with building engagement. Creating positive mood is a personal activity: Face-to-face time with employees, finding ways to listen, expressing interest in employees’ stress, and generating a we’re- all-in-this-together attitude helps create an environment in which people feel safe. Safe people are resilient.

Resilient is good.

What can I do to limit ambiguity?
It’s not the change that rattles people, but the ambiguity it generates. Change drains our willpower and leaves us tired and scattered. We can minimize the drain by allowing people as much control as possible. This may come in the form of access to information, resources for help, clarity, and autonomy in decision-making.

Even the perception of control settles us down. Years ago I worked with the operations manager of several high-rise office buildings in New York City. He told me a story from early in his career.

“At first, all of the complaints I received from the Type-As working here drove me crazy! ‘My office is too cold,’ ‘It’s too hot!’ I almost quit. Then I solved the problem: I put a little thermostat in each person’s office. The gizmos didn’t actually do anything, but the complaints dropped to zero.”

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The belief that we have the ability to affect what is happening to us is calming.

As leaders, we want to foster an environment of possibility instead of having every answer. We need to practice issue spotting so that out-of-the-blue obstacles don’t creep up unnecessarily. Communicating redundantly about what to expect, what will be difficult and where we are headed helps provide a path. This reiteration, combined with giving employees a sense of control, eliminates the bulk of uncertainty that accompanies change.

Where can we foster displacement?
When researchers studied the historical patterns of innovation and discovery, they found something counterintuitive. The years during America’s Great Depression were filled with great creativity and invention. The explanation for this lies in the unusual blending of people and industry that occurred as the economy displaced workers. Organizational change does something similar. This is the time to encourage different parts of the organization to mix. Disorder also breeds creativity.

This is the upside to change that is easily missed. Creativity is airborne as old structures break down, new leaders take charge and people blend in unusual ways. Simply rushing people to get a grip does not do the trick; when push comes to shove they always shove back. Instead, we can communicate about the time-limited opportunity provided by disorder. Displacement leads to creativity. Creativity leads to innovation. Our goal here is to capture the good ideas that come from new thinking, new collaboration and crazy solutions.

In most cases, it isn’t the mechanics of change that fail, but missing the human needs in the process. To get started try this: Step back, calm down, set a course through the ambiguity and encourage the way it shakes things up. This advice is simple, though not easy to do. Taking these steps provides a foundation for embracing change and overcoming the unease it evokes.

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