Something I discovered while working with business owners and leadership teams suggested that many of them viewed organizational change as a theoretical construct. They talked change, discussed change models, and at times, were frustrated and paralyzed by it. It became mind boggeling. Yet, the most crucial element regarding change is not at the intellectual level; it's at the emotional level. It hits people in the heart and gut.
Perhaps you can relate to these statements:
"We're reinventing the organization but change is too slow."
"Why don't my employees get it."
"We've had meeting after meeting about the new vision for the company, but so little has changed."
"My Board is getting impatient it wants to see people acting differently now."
"We're in a process of changing our culture but it isn't happening fast enough."
What's going on here? What's going on is that the leadership team doesn't fully understand, or is reluctant to accept that organizational change is a slow process, and could take up to seven years to come to fruition.
No matter what the change is some aspect of the organizational culture will change as a result of the process. The fact remains, however, that organizational culture only changes when people decide that the change has value for them. That's the rub. People need to "feel" that the change will benefit them in some way. If they don't, the change will be long and fraught with difficulty. At its core, the leadership team want individuals to let go of something that defines them and replace it with something new and different.
Imagine a large organization with all its systems and processes predicated on a hierarchical structure and the leadership team now deems that a vision-value driven organization with interconnected teams' delivering services and products within a flat structure is the way for the future. This is a tsunami change for almost everyone in the organization and becomes a huge challenge for them. Here the "what" and "how" of work is literally turned upside down. What was "valued and rewarded" in the past is now slipping away.
Now imagine a small or medium sized business that's going through rapid change as it comes to grips with a fast paced evolving marketplace. New people are hired while others are let go. New products are brought on stream, and others are dropped. People are confused about the direction of the company, how to relate to each other and what they are supposed to do. Again, people are challenged about the "what" and "how" of their work.
Most people define themselves not by who they are (which is the subject of another post) but by what they do; and, what they do is wrapped up in their self-image and ego. When people define themselves in this way, letting go of what they do means they need to redefine themselves in some way. This poses both an intellectual and an emotional challenge for them. Letting go, however, is precisely what has to happen if any change is to occur.
The process of redefinition takes time and many will try to protect their ego, their self-image and their job (what they do) by initially denying that the change is real. They say such things as:
“I don't think anything will really change."
“Let's wait it out – this too shall pass,”
“I’ll make some surface changes to show I’m willing, but I'm not going to really change what I do," and,
"This new approach is too much for me, I can't go along with it."
Leadership teams need to fully appreciate that organizations are made up of individuals who have different personalities, attitudes, habits and behaviors. When change is introduced they are asking each one of these individuals to accept a level of personal change. Some will want to hang on to their comfortable past, others will “get it" and will want to move ahead, while others won't be sure which action to take and will vacillate back and forth from one position to the next.
Let's consider just one aspect of what we are asking people to change, their habits.
Ask any leader two simple questions: 1) Did you have a well wired habit that you tried to change? and, 2) How hard was it to change that habit? If they are honest they will tell you that it wasn't easy and it took some time to feel comfortable with the new habit.
When a leadership team embarks on changing an organization it is asking not one individual but many individuals to change their habits and behaviors. If those individuals have been working the same way and using the same processes within the same structures, they have developed a habitual way of completing their work. They now must break away from what they have interpreted as acceptable to something different and new. They are being asked to change their habitual pattern which over time has become part of their identity; and, taking on new habits is not necessarily easy and usually time consuming.
At the root of all this is that the leadership team wants individuals to take a leap of faith - to trust them that the new is better than the old. Individuals need to be convinced that it is better to let go than to hang on. This requires the leadership team to constantly communicate and reiterate the positive aspects of the new direction with patience, practical learning opportunities, engagement, and the willingness to adjust when required.
Lasting organizational change only happens when people are ready. They are ready when they intellectually recognize the benefits for the change and integrate them emotionally. That's when it becomes a new way for them. Some will grasp, celebrate, and incorporate the change quickly; others will recognize the benefits but will still be reluctant to change, When they do they may slip back to past behaviors and require continual encouragement and support. Eventually the organizational culture will change and those who have accepted the change will evidence a new habitual pattern.
It is also my experience that there are those individuals who are unwilling to change. People around them have embraced or a least have adjusted to their new reality, but they haven't. In these cases the leadership team has three options, they can:
Questions to Ponder: Do you consider the mired of people issues when you embark on a change process within your organization? Do you think organizational change takes too long? Do you say: "Change, or else!" Do you believe that individuals have to integrate the change both intellectually and emotionally? Are there times when the leadership team can't wait - they need to move quickly and accept the fall out? What process do you follow when introducing change within your company or organization?
You may also be interested in the series found under LeaderManager on the Front Page: "The Middle Muddle"
Updated from the archives of Fontanie Learning Solutions.