How Leaders Kill Meaning At Work

Taking the wrong action in organisations is endemic

A study conducted by John Kotter in 1996 and more recent research conducted by McKinsey, show that seven out of ten change efforts fail. How can this be so? More importantly, how much money is mismanagement of change costing your organisation? The figure may well frighten you, but as a rough estimate, calculate the cost of everyone in your company who is working on changing behaviours, systems, processes or structures and then assume that 70 percent of that figure is money down the drain. No organisation can afford this – it is costing you dearly.

One of the most common problems we experience in organisations is senior people simply not taking the time – and often courage – to engage in open and transparent dialogue to ensure understanding of, or to formulate, a coherent strategy. In more cases than I choose to count, we are assured that the strategy is clear and that the role we are invited to play is to help the team work more collaboratively to help achieve it. In many cases however, the strategy is indeed unclear within the senior team. We often find that one or two people have spent a lot of time compiling an aesthetically appealing PowerPoint presentation which gives the appearance of a well thought out strategy owned by the team.

Sometimes after working with executive teams for a relatively short period of time, it emerges that while there has been some conversation about the strategy, it usually lacks the robust debate required to get all views on the table, and certainly not harness the collective knowledge and experience in the group. In the worst cases, we have discovered that some members of the team believed it to be the wrong strategy altogether, but failed to speak up. This then leads to ineffective action and wasted energy.

5 Steps towards sound action

Step 1: Work on the Team Dynamics First

Without a solid foundation of trust and openness and skill in communicating effectively, people will not engage in unbridled dialogue, thereby reducing the quality of the outcomes. Conversations not supported by sound team dynamics are likely to suffer from what Jack Welch of GE fame called ‘superficial congeniality’ – or the other end of the spectrum, uncontrolled egos being played out in aggressive and unhelpful ways. It is the whole team’s responsibility to build a requisite level of psychological safety where members feel they can say what needs to be said without fear of retribution. Effective team dynamics requires a degree of self-awareness of each team member.

Step 2: Get others to face the reality of their condition

While it sounds obvious, organisations need to be able to not only assess their strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities, they need to be able to do this in an honest and courageous way. This means being able to skilfully diagnose the external and internal environment in a holistic and meaningful way. It also requires those in authority to skilfully engage with the many stakeholders to surface competing needs and expectations.

Step 3: Mobilise the Organisation

To mobilise the organisation (or business unit, practice area or team), managers must be able create an environment where people feel energised around the change. ‘Energised’ may mean a compelling story (positive or negative) or turning the heat up on the system by allowing people to see the reality of their condition for example. Most managers make the mistake of taking on the change and actions themselves rather than giving it back to the people with the problem. Any significant and enduring change requires a critical mass to engage.

Step 4: Support the Change

One of the most effective ‘uses’ of authority is to provide direction, protection and order. This doesn’t mean adopt a command and control approach or even directive. What is required however is that those with authority (both formal and informal) in organisations must use it intelligently to help facilitate the change. This might entail actions such as asking probing open questions to keep the heat and impetus for change alive, help work across factions at your level if beyond those with less authority, partner with other senior people across the organisation around the change, provide professional individual and team coaching, or provide adequate resourcing.

Step 5: Embed the Change and Reassess

Taking action to change something in your organisation often involves both technical (where the solution is known or knowable) and adaptive change (where the solution is not readily apparent and usually involves working with people’s values, beliefs loyalties and priorities). To embed change, both technical and adaptive components must be considered and alignment strategies formulated. Change in the real world is usually much more iterative and less linear than our outdated industrial age paradigm would dictate, but that’s exactly what’s needed. Once actions are taken, managers must be watchful and continually assess the efficacy of such actions and adjust course accordingly.

If you would like more information about change leadership and execution, please contact us for a free consultation.

The Leadership Sphere is the trusted business partner to many of Australia’s largest and most respected companies across a range of industries. We specialise in Leadership Development, Corporate Team Development and Culture Change.