Leading your people through change

20 January 2017

Remember the days when a “change programme” made sense? Change seemed more controllable, more linear – with a beginning, a middle, an end. The change management gurus told us that if we had a clear vision, an aligned senior team, a consistent message and some change champions, it would all go to plan. I have been leading change in complex organisations for years and more recently this hasn’t seemed to work so well.

Things happen faster, priorities change more frequently, the finances are more volatile and our people seem more tired, more cynical and more reluctant to follow an edict from on high. Whether we label this “change fatigue” or the “symptoms of a disrupted world”, I believe it’s time to challenge the accepted wisdom about leading change.

The traditional approaches are running out of steam. If trust in leaders has hit a new low, then techniques such as command and control and cascading the key messages simply cannot deliver. If the pace of change and surfeit of data means we cannot possibly predict the near-term future, then expecting leaders to have all the answers is absurd. If the flux of modern organisations means the incentives we used to offer as carrots to our people for loyalty – length of tenure, stability, promotions etc – are increasingly empty, then this means we have to find new ways of leading our people through uncertainty.

I believe this presents some organisations with a fantastic opportunity. The ones that acknowledge that the old methods no longer work and who are prepared to embrace some new approaches will become more agile, more creative and more successful. I’ll talk about these new approaches at the Housing Finance Conference and Exhibition 2017 but in summary it’s called “EACH” – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human Beings.

Treat me as an adult

Traditional employer/employee relationships start with the assumption that employees are like children and need to be either protected or controlled. The new approach is to treat your people as adults and in everything you do, have a starting point of assuming positive intent and encouraging them to “use good judgement”.

Treat me like a consumer

If we were to think about our employees as we do our consumers, then we would do things differently. We would recognise that shoe-horning employees into one size fits all processes can’t possibly work and we would segment and customise our approach based on the nature of the people we’re serving.  We would accept that our people are sophisticated, messy and complex entities who need to be engaged in a variety of ways.

Treat me as a human being

The so-called VUCA world means we need our people to work in new ways, with different people, with different technology, in new locations. It’s the human stuff – humility, showing genuine interest in people and acts of kindness - that builds trust with our people and encourages them to follow us into uncertainty.

It’s not complex, but it is demanding because it involves challenging some deeply held beliefs and getting rid of habits that make us feel comfortable. There is though, great cause for optimism if we challenge this old thinking and embrace something different.  

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