How to Lead Change When So Much Is Already in Flux

Disruption caused by COVID-19 has provided a strong impetus for organizations to not only modify behaviors for survival, but to drive overdue change to improve organization systems and health. With so much happening at once, the ability to manage change has become crucial at all leadership levels. Increasing understanding of our psychological responses to change can help leaders navigate the required shifts in people, processes and focus. Gain the tools to lead yourself and others through change at the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference.
Heading into the one-year mark of our new ways of working and living, effective leaders must be able to withstand short-term change and drive long-term transformation. Top-down approaches focused on compliance can work for a while, but to help your team sustain new ways of working, you need to understand what motivates people to change.
“At work and at home, each of us is confronted almost daily right now with the need to reinvent how we reach consumers, deliver goods and services, communicate in the workplace and even balance work and personal time,” says Jerry Magar, founding partner of People Systems Consulting and an academic director for Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Executive Education.   
One of the most important elements to spearheading change people actually embrace is slowing down long enough to provide the “why” and listening to the fears that accompany resistance. Magar will facilitate a session on Leading Change: What All Leaders Must Know during the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference. The Conference will be held live virtually and live in person March 21-24 in Dallas.
Changing mindsets and behavior
McKinsey & Company developed the “influence model” to focus the actions of leaders and organizations driving transformative change around four key actions. They are: fostering understanding and conviction, reinforcing changes through formal mechanisms, developing talent and skills, and role modeling.
In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, they found that successful transformations were almost eight times more likely to use all four actions as opposed to just one.
Foster understanding
People struggle when they are required to act in ways they don’t understand. Knowing the “why” behind the need for change can address that concern and help people get behind even difficult adjustments. The big pitfall here, however, is that leaders often assume others have already bought in, share their same beliefs and are ready to move ahead.

“The bias for action that typically enables leaders to succeed can work against you if you attempt to implement change before gaining team member understanding and support,” Magar cautions. “Ironically, moving too quickly often slows progress and, ultimately, requires backtracking,” he says.
Consider spending more time up front making the case for change, asking for feedback and providing candid answers to questions. Even before the current prevalence of remote work, many companies effectively used technology to engage employee input. In 2006, IBM used its intranet to conduct two 72-hour feedback sessions where stakeholders engaged in online debate about business opportunities. More than 150,000 people participated.  
Reinforce with formal mechanisms
If you ask people to change, make sure organization systems reinforce the same changes. It’s easy to overlook deeply embedded processes that make it easier to behave in old ways. You may even unintentionally reward employees for meeting old KPIs that undercut the transformation process.
Magar specifically calls out the anticipated productivity drop that tends to accompany large change processes. Although some folks will offer easy fixes to “skip the dip,” effective change management happens over time and it is likely that short-term results may decline as everyone advances on the learning curve and masters new ways of working. Carefully tracking performance mechanisms and providing support to navigate expected challenges can help you move through them without panicking.
Develop skills and talent
When you ask people to perform new activities, or perform existing activities in new ways, you cannot assume they already know how. Assess what new skills will be needed. Ask people what support they need to perform their newly imagined job effectively. Do the same for yourself.
Recognize that some team members will ask for help but others may lack the confidence to do so. Without proactive intervention, they may hide incompetence, revert to known systems and even engage in behavior that sabotages new efforts.
Role model new behaviors 
As always, what you do sends a more powerful message than what you say. From the C-Suite through to all levels, leaders must actively and visibly adopt the new mindsets and behaviors they are urging in others.
“When leaders combine behaving in new ways with talking about them, sharing challenges and successes, it lets others know we are in this together, that leadership is fully behind the new vision and even that those who do not adopt the new behaviors might find themselves left behind,” Magar says.
When you recognize that organization change is really about individuals deciding to change, leaders can build alignment rather than resistance.

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