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Organizational Change: What Effective Leaders Do

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What happens when we want to make changes in our company? We start with the best of intentions and with innovative ideas, meetings, vision statements, data collection, and strategic plans and goals. Maybe we want to increase sales, improve or introduce new products and services, streamline work processes, enhance customer service, expand the business, and so on. We are optimistic that positive results will follow. We would never implement change with the expectation that it will fail. After all, if we expected it to fail, then why bother?

Yet, organizational change efforts often do fail. Why?

Change fails for a number of reasons. Sometimes the company’s culture simply doesn’t tolerate change. People aren’t ready for it yet and they resist it. Maybe the change was ill-conceived, poorly thought-out, or even unnecessary. Perhaps needed resources weren’t available, or the timing just wasn’t right. But one of the biggest obstacles to change is the behavior of leaders. Not only can leaders fail to manage change effectively, but their behaviors can make things even worse, resulting in a situation where it would have been better to do nothing!

A study by Gilley et al.* shed some light on specific leader behaviors that are needed for effective organizational change. The study surveyed 513 working professionals across various industries. One of the findings of the study was that 80% of respondents reported that their leaders never, rarely or only sometimes implement change effectively! The study found that leaders who demonstrate the following behaviors are perceived as successful in implementing change initiatives:
  • Communicate frequently and enthusiastically 
    Successful leaders provide abundant, relevant, and truthful information about the change, and communicate how the change will personally affect employees. While it’s important to be realistic and not overly optimistic, ambivalent communication will produce resistance and weaken the leader’s credibility in building a case for why change is needed.
  • Motivate employees 
    Successful leaders establish an environment that is conducive to change and persuade employees to work toward common goals. According to the study, leaders who are skilled in creating an atmosphere of motivation during a change initiative “communicate effectively, address employees’ questions, generate creative ideas, prioritize ideas, direct personnel practices, plan employees’ actions, commit employees to action, and provide follow-up to overcome motivational problems.” As much as possible, leaders ensure a positive experience during the organizational change.
  • Build teams 
    Successful leaders promote synergistic teamwork. However the organization chooses to define teams – as work groups, departments, committees, or simply the whole company in the case of a small business – teamwork is critical to effective organizational change. Leaders clearly define roles and expectations, but at the same time, value and welcome diversity of work styles, skills, and backgrounds. Leaders clearly set the expectation that employees are expected to work collaboratively in teams, but the environment is supportive rather than coercive.
  • Act as coaches 
    Coaches build one-on-one relationships with the intent of improving employees’ ability to maximize their strengths and work cooperatively with others during and after the change initiative. A coach is a future-oriented agent of change. Mentoring, counseling, training, and providing feedback are coaching behaviors that can help in facilitating organizational change.
And on the last point about coaching, the leader himself or herself may need some one-on-one coaching to build behavioral skills needed for successful organizational change. Often, an outside perspective from a leadership coach or consultant can be helpful in steering leaders in the right direction and removing the blinders that inhibit effective behaviors needed for organizational change.

It should be obvious that the leadership behaviors necessary for effective change are people-oriented. Too often, leaders simply mandate change and expect employees to fall in line and get it done, but do little or nothing to help them get there. Leaders who focus on people are likely to be the most successful in managing change in their companies. Leaders who don’t focus on people are likely to fail.

-- Kelly Mollica, Ph.D., The Centre Group

* A. Gilley, J.W. Gilley, & H.S. McMillan, “Organizational change: Motivation, communication, and leadership effectiveness,” Performance Improvement Quarterly, 2009, 21(4): 75-94.

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