Three non-negotiables to leading change

Written by
Felix Bramley
The Oxford Group

12 Dec 2018

12 Dec 2018 • by Felix Bramley

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We are well into the fourth industrial revolution. Smart technology is changing the face of our workforce, while the rise of populist politics and protectionist policy threatens the value of globalisation.

The combination of these factors has led to an unprecedented breadth of organisational change and uncertainty over the past two years. Many organisations across the globe are implementing change programmes, yet very few organisations confidently manage change to get the best out of their people and maintain engagement, and ultimately over 70% of attempted transformations fail.

To successfully implement change, managers must balance self-interest, their team’s requirements, and those of the organisation. There are three challenges in particular that have always been – and always will be – absolutely crucial to the success of any change activity.

Enabling managers to manage their own change anxiety

Managers must be able to manage change and uncertainty on a personal level before being able to effectively guide people and the organisations through change. This can be challenging; when managers feel vulnerable, they are likely to tow the party line and keep their head down to avoid feeling exposed and at risk themselves. This often means suppressing their change anxiety.

Senior leaders are responsible for articulating the change vision and garnering support for it from across the organisation. In an effort to maintain employees’ confidence in the change vision, many choose not to discuss their own fears and anxieties surrounding change. Consequently, managers also suppress their anxiety, and so too do individual contributors. But this doesn’t stop the anxiety. Instead it results in fears, concerns and anxiety festering in private – denigrating the change vision, disengaging employees and diverting motivation away from business objectives.

Open and honest communication helps employees understand what leaders are truly feeling, which is invaluable as an organisation is developing and adapting its change vision to engage employees. This will help get people comfortable with change being a continuous and evolving process, as it should be in a fast-moving working environment. If managers see their senior leaders adopting this approach, it gives them permission to participate in authentic communication which is not only cathartic but proven to build trust and engagement, leading to superior business performance.

To facilitate this positive impact across an organisation there must be a forum for employees to ask questions, raise concerns and share their own thoughts and feelings. Senior leaders and managers must also be visible, authentic and vulnerable – sharing their genuine thoughts and feelings about the change.

Encouraging teams to own the organisation’s change vision

It is very rare for a large or medium sized organisation to be able to engage all employees around a single message. Different departments and regions will inevitably be affected by change differently, therefore it is important to segment internal populations and customise the message. The change vision must be applied to the context of each employee. Delegation and empowerment are critical here. Senior leaders who are not close to the day-to-day operations of each department or region are not well-placed to articulate customised departmental and regional change visions.

This responsibility ought to be devolved to departmental managers; their relationships with employees and their understanding of the impact of change at a local level enables them to develop engaging, empathetic messages. But in order to be effective in this capacity, managers must communicate effectively with senior leaders; on the one hand to ensure they are fully informed on the strategic objectives and wider context so they can interpret it accurately and feel confident in what they are saying, and on the other to contribute to a holistic picture of change messaging by regularly reporting back.

Devolving responsibility for the local change vision empowers departmental managers and enables them to take ownership – boosting their motivation and engagement. This can filter down to employees throughout the organisation if departmental managers go a step further by empowering their direct reports to help define the change vision. Managers can do this by holding focus groups, dialogue sessions and local impact assessments – allowing individual contributors to pilot aspects of the change solution.

Identifying and engaging change agents

Influencing is a vital element of change implementation; in order to be successful, change projects must win the hearts and minds of employees and stakeholders. Change agents can:

  • Advocate and legitimise the vision
  • Translate ideas into behaviours and processes
  • Connect individuals and departments
  • Role model behaviours and processes
  • Guide and support individuals

Effective change agents must be well-respected across the organisation or parts of it, have a broad network and hold a genuine belief in the change vision. Organisations should identify change agents with these characteristics in each department. Often, this will be a case of formalising an informal role. Change agents will already be their colleagues’ go-to person and they’ll already be passionate about the organisation.

The framing of the appointment request is critical. The request must appeal to the prospective change agent’s passion for the organisation, it should be positioned as an opportunity to help shape the future of the company. Prospective change agents may be reluctant to take on this responsibility because of a perceived pressure to know all the answers. They should be invited to discuss the responsibilities and agree the parameters of the role on a case-by-case basis as their engagement is key.

The change agents must also feel supported. Organisations can achieve this by forging a community of change agents – providing opportunities for them to interact and share experiences. They must also feel that they are more than a conduit or channel for sharing senior management decisions, but that they have an active role to play in influencing how change progresses.

The Oxford Group’s latest webinar discussed some of the most fundamental challenges that can make or break business transformations.


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