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Leaders Must Have ‘Edge” to Drive Change

Original Publication: The CEO Magazine
Original Publication Date: June 5, 2017

This article is the third in the “All Change is Personal” series looking at three traps that leaders need to manage in order to steward their organization through change efforts.  To read the first two articles in the series and learn what Trap’s #1 and #2 are, click here:

Lacking Sufficient Edge to Get the Job Done

“43% of employees agreed or strongly agreed that ‘I sometimes, purposefully or not, resist change.”                                                                                 – IHHP Research Study

A manager or leader’s job is never easy, least of all during change. They have to work hard to deliver results, quarter after quarter. They need to stay on top of changing customer and partner needs and they need to pay attention to morale levels of their employees.

At the same time that they are attempting to implement change, they are experiencing the impact of change themselves.  Their brains, like their direct reports, are attempting to help them survive through uncertainty.  If this isn’t tough enough, they are going to encounter people along the way who simply will not change.  For reasons beyond the manager’s or leader’s control, some people will be unable to get over the emotion that the change is creating in them.

No matter what a leader does, these people will not adapt – they will dig their heels in and refuse to change.  It is at this stage of encountering barriers, where the vast majority of leaders fall short.

Folger Skarlicki found that “resent-based resistance behaviors”, which can range from subtle acts of non-cooperation to industrial sabotage, are often seen by the perpetrators as subjectively justifiable – a way to “get even” for perceived mistreatment and a way for employees to exercise their power to restore perceived injustice”

“63% of employees agree or strongly agree that the reason change fails at our organization is because leaders don’t hold employees, who are barriers to change, accountable.”
– IHHP Research Study

This is especially true where being ‘nice’ is one of the dominant values in an organizational culture or where the organization has had a ‘family’ feel to it for some time. Organizations who fit this description and who aspire to be world class have a very difficult time changing. Not impossible, but difficult. The reason? Their leaders often do not have the skill or the courage to engage in the difficult conversations required to deal with the people who will not change.

A case in point: in a recent study by the Concours Group, researchers found that 80% of leaders routinely experience direct reports who let them down, and who don’t follow through on their required tasks in order to implement a change project.

While this may seem surprising, what is a larger, even more surprising number is the fact that only 14% of these same leaders have the difficult conversations required to address problems.  This means that over 60% of resistant or difficult employees are not dealt with.  And, apparently on a ‘routine’ basis.

The consequences?
82% of the time deadlines are missed;
73% of the time budgets go over time;
77% of the time there is a failure to meet functionality or quality, and;
69% of the time team morale gets damaged.

What Leaders Can Do

In our work with professional sports teams, NBA Coach Doc Rivers told us: “if you don’t deal with the underperformer’ in the room, you will lose the room”.

This is as true for a dressing room or an arena in the NBA as it is in a meeting room in an organization. When a leader doesn’t deal with ‘barrier people’ who are letting both themselves and others down, not only does performance decline, but the leader loses the respect of the team.   In this way, the leader ‘loses the room’ and coaching people through change becomes all the more difficult.

A leader, especially, in a more ‘collegial’ organizational environment has to be able to live with their people not liking them. If a leader has a driving need to be liked, they will be incapable of having edge when it counts, such as during change. Leaders need to engage in the difficult conversations with resistant or underperforming employees, or the change initiative will go off the rails.

“Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.  Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable if you’re honorable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”
– Colin Powell

Heart and Edge 

A good leader can be committed to getting things done, to holding people accountable and implementing change but the difference in a leader with heart and edge, is how it is done.

“65% of employees agree or strongly agree that if leaders had more empathy it would be easier to buy into and attempt to change.”
– IHHP Research Study

Heart and edge means that leaders  stretch themselves to understand their employees’  ‘side of the bridge’ – they have compassion for employees’ circumstances and try to understand who they are as a person.  By doing so, leaders can hold their people accountable in a way that is unique to them. Because change is so personal, difficult conversations must happen with those resisting change but with minimal comments, questions or statements that will cause the individual to become triggered.   It is our job to help them keep enough working memory in order to accept feedback.

It also means that after tuning in, giving them voice in the planning process, and making them feel valued through the difficult period of change, that if they continue to resist change, we give them feedback and hold them accountable to get on with it.

Summary

At each stage of the change process, leaders routinely fall into traps that sabotage their best intentions. In the planning stage, they routinely fail to solicit input from their staff. At the implementation stage, they often neglect to recognize that change is a very personal experience for people. Without acknowledging or understanding how change is an operating system problem (and not a behavioral problem) many leaders begin the counterproductive strategy of micromanaging.

In turn, micromanagement can cause even good employees to disengage or, worse, to become barriers to change. If leaders do not deal with ‘barrier people’ head on and decisively, they risk losing the respect of their team and any chance of being one of the few organizations who are actually successful at change.

Successful change must begin in the brain of the leader.   First, great leaders must manage themselves and their own reactions.  Only then can they begin to tune in and understand the behavior of their employees – not just from what they see, but with an understanding of the operating system causing the behavior.  By doing so, great leaders will help their employees succeed at the very personal nature of change and shift the low rate of success in change initiatives upward.

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