Wrestling with change is hard. There are lots of reasons why, and more articles and books than you could read in a lifetime on how to fix it. This is particularly true in the business world, where change always equates to more work, new things to learn, and potential changes to roles and responsibilities.
In our personal lives, the idea of changing our behaviors, habits and routines is scary for many as well, and can lead to frustration, anger and eventually relationship issues. Most people just don’t like change. Period.
But as a leader, change is both inevitable and necessary. Our teams and our organizations look to us to encourage and facilitate change. Change is what keeps a business viable and able to handle the inevitable fluctuations in the industries and markets that we work in. Without change, we are destined to obscurity.
Unfortunately, as leaders, we aren’t immune to the feelings about change either. After all, leaders are people too, and someone ‘up the chain’ (a parent organization, a boss, or shareholders) is inevitably pushing us to change, grow and morph into something new all the time as well. It’s to be expected that resistance to change will not come easy for the leader either.
It’s when resistance to change becomes an intractable position, and the leader would rather leave things alone than help the team and organization to grow that it can become an issue. You can’t lead while standing still. To grow, you have to be willing to change during the entire tenure of your leadership.
What specifically makes change so hard for people? We all know it’s unavoidable, yet we find that managing change, and overcoming the resistance to it is almost a full time job. The status quo is a powerful state of being. We like comfort, consistency and predictability.
In their seminal book on change,‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard‘, Chip and Dan Heath describe the areas that a leader needs to influence to effect change on an individual or an organization. They state that there are three areas that have to be influenced; the situation, the heart and the mind. And, rightly so, they say that “often the heart and mind disagree. Fervently.”
And when the heart and mind disagree, often times the heart wins, and people become frozen. According to a number of large consultancies such as McKinsey & Company, IBM and others, project failure rates are extremely high (as many as 70% of organizations, according to a 2010 study by KPMG, had suffered at least one significant project failure in the prior year) and most of it was attributed to employee resistance to change. One study suggested that 75% of project managers EXPECT their project to fail! While I agree with this in general, I think there is an easily overlooked reason that isn’t often cited. Leadership resistance.
While easy to blame the team member for their lack of willingness to change, or their resistance to new ideas, it’s not always that simple. If the leaders themselves aren’t even convinced at the outset of a project or change initiative that it will be successful, how can they expect the organization to buy in. Leadership attitude toward change, and the example that they set in the organization, has more influence on the success or failure of change than any program or process could ever have. As a leader, you have to be willing to be the example, work through your own internal resistance, and be the real change agent. If you are starting out with the attitude that things will fail, it’s a certainty.
At this point, you’re likely thinking to yourself that you are not the reason for resistance to change. You likely feel like you’re the one who is pushing others to change, working the team to make sure they are motivated and on board, and constantly keeping an eye on every aspect of the change to make sure it’s a success. I hope that’s true. But, if it’s not, what do you need to do as a leader to change your attitude?
- Be honest with yourself – If you are finding that internal voice telling you that this is just another initiative that is going to fail, have you really come to grips with what that means? In other words, if your mind is telling you it can’t be done, you’re likely portraying that outwardly whether you realize it or not. Most leaders don’t have great ‘poker faces’, and their bodies, facial expressions and demeanor betray their mind. Being honest about how you feel is the first step toward change.
- Determine where the resistance is coming from – If you don’t know why you are resistant, you can’t come up with a ‘get well’ plan. One of the key reasons that leaders start to resist change, and determine change projects are going to fail come from past experiences. We can become more inclined to believe that change will fail if we have experienced failure in the past, sometimes known as the Availability Heuristic. This is even more true if the most recent project or change initiative we were involved with didn’t go well.
- Reevaluate the facts – Because we can have selective memories, and tend to remember the most recent bad experience, it’s important to relook at the facts with a fresh perspective. If your last change didn’t go well, find out why. What people, processes or technologies led to the failure. Will these same things be in play the next time around? If so, what needs to change to ensure they don’t get in the way again? It’s also important that you ask yourself what impact you had on the prior failure. Were you as involved as you should have been? Did you help make sure the environment for change was established well, and the team had what they needed to succeed? If not, be honest with yourself and figure out what you need to change as well.
- Evaluate your commitment – One of the most difficult things for most leaders is being honest with their own feelings. By nature, leaders are a bit competitive, and can fail to see their own weaknesses. After all, if the leader can’t drive through insecurity, who can, right? But, to be effective in change initiatives, it might require some real introspection if there are nagging doubts about the success. If the commitment to the success of the change isn’t there, it would be better for a leader to step aside, or find someone who is more motivated to take the lead on the change. In fact, this might be just the time to let a rising leader step up and take on a new role, or drive the change you don’t think you have the energy for. But, if there is doubt about your willingness to support someone else, by all means, step aside. A leader who is a barrier to change is like a leaky dam. Eventually the pressure to change will become too great, and things will go around you, over you, or cause you to burst.
In having been involved in projects for many years, I have seen many projects fall prey to the negative attitude of the leader. Whether its the business customer who’s sure that ‘IT’ will not deliver, or a Project Manager, tainted by recurring bad experiences with project teams, the failure rate can truly be high. But, it doesn’t have to be.
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What are some things you can do to ensure that this next project will be a success? What can you do, specifically, to make sure you hold yourself accountable to being positive about the change, and seeing it through to completion?
- Set Personal Goals – Many times, if you have already started with a view that a project is going to fail, or the change is just going to be too hard, it’s time to set some goals personally. Even if you can’t commit to a perfect attitude and cheery demeanor, you can at least set some realistic goals for completion, and meet them. Much like exercise, it’s not always easy when you start out, and getting up before the sun comes up to go run takes some guts and determination. But, over time, you get used to it, and will find you actually miss the exercise. The same thing goes for leading change. Every day isn’t going to be a bed of roses, and there will be hard things to overcome. But, stick to it, and you just might reenergize and look forward to the challenge.
- Find someone to hold you accountable – Actually, I would suggest you have two people in mind. One should be a peer that you can vent to. They should be able to recognize when you’re not doing well, when your attitude isn’t what you need, and can actually call you out on it. We all need accountability. The other should be someone on the project or change initiative that is being affected by the change as well. Ideally, this is someone who you can go to for feedback on how you’re managing the change, or at least how it’s coming across. Some of the most effective feedback I ever get is from folks on my team that I trust, and have the ability to call me out when I’m not displaying good leadership. Trust me, they are likely a sounding board for many others in the organization/team who see the same thing, but don’t have the confidence or ability to be frank and honest.
- Find your biggest detractor, and make friends – Let’s be honest. Most change is made hard by just a few people. They are the ones who just seem to want to disrupt anything you’re doing. They hate change. They hate being asked to change. And most of all, they feel like it’s their responsibility to make sure the change doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if they see themselves as the ‘guardian’ of the status quo. This is the person you need to make friends with. Once you can make friends, and see a small success in their change in attitude, it has a wonderful affect on your outlook on life. Small successes are refreshing. And, if nothing else, you’ll get a feel for how NOT to be!
- Create a cause – Even if you can’t get behind a change personally, there is almost always someone who will benefit from it. Remember, as a leader, your job isn’t to always get what’s best for you, or even what’s good for you. Your job as a leader is to get what’s best for the team or organization. In fact, more times than not, what’s best for the organization will not provide you any real benefit. If so, pull on your boots and go fight for the ones who will benefit. Take on their cause, and you are likely to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. That pride may just propel you to work harder, and make sure the change is effective. As the old saying goes, you may have to ‘fake it to make it.’
Change is hard. Leadership can be hard. Combining them both makes for some difficult days. But, your job as a leader is to drive through the difficulties, find ways ahead, and make change that benefits the organization. If you can’t do that, you aren’t earning your pay.
What have you done in times of difficult change? What techniques got you through and made you the change agent you needed to be?
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