Transformational Change: Holding each other accountable
In my first blog, I introduced the idea that if organisations are seeking transformational change, they must address organisational culture in order to enable this transformation. Change, despite many of the horror stories we hear, can be more energising, humane, and fun. I introduced 7 key attributes that must be part of your transformational change agenda in order to thrive.. This blog expands on idea #6 – holding each other accountable for the change
Say you’ve made it all the way to this step, now you must draw on some seriously emotionally intelligent skills – giving feedback. Maybe you saw one team member not holding up their end of the bargain, or your leader has slipped back into old habits. What should you do? Give feedback. What do most people do? They let it slide. After all, it was just once and you didn’t want to make a big deal about it right?
Well, it is a big deal. Letting the every day moments slide eventually builds up to create a shadow process that begins to eclipse your efforts at driving change. Given enough sliding and time, this shadow process will overtake the change process and become the norm again, leaving all your hard work a distant memory and instead creating another change horror story that ends up in the transformation program graveyard.
The everyday decisions on whether to give feedback or let it slide are where most transformational change efforts begin to erode and where people start to become jaded or lose confidence in the change. How do you overcome this?
Commit to development.
Any transformation program must have learning and development at the heart of it. Many organisations who do include development, only focus on the “seen” elements (see graphic below on the 4 quadrants of change, adapted from the work of Ken Wilbert, Integral Theory, and Bob Anderson, The Spirit of Leadership).
The individual, unseen (quadrant 4) is often the most neglected quadrant of change. Not only must we learn new behaviours and skills, we also need to learn new mindsets, ways of thinking and being, and re-create a sense of meaning and purpose to adapt to and embrace change. Development must be holistic, addressing all four quadrants of change so that accountability can be fostered at all levels of the system.
Transformation programs tend to follow a predictable pattern. In keeping with our example of a transformation towards more customer centricity:
- First, organisations often will first focus on creating a vision and strategy that articulates a customer centric vision and defines the strategies and initiatives that will support a shift towards this vision in the coming months or years (quadrant 1).
- Secondly, most leaders will then identify a need for some sort of culture change to support the transformation (quadrant 2) such as creating a culture of innovation. The thinking tends to be that if we are innovative, then we can better meet our customer’s needs.
- Thirdly, specialists typically in HR are enlisted to support defining the skills and behaviours to sustain the change (quadrant 3). The question they have to address is “what skills do we need to support a culture of innovation?” Programs such as design thinking are then designed and launched. Competencies related to innovation may also be introduced into performance management processes.
However, the change gets stuck at this point because we don’t complete the circle by engaging in quadrant 4 change – the internal and individual shifts in thinking, values, and meaning. For example, if employees continue to (consciously or unconsciously) believe that they will be punished if they make process mistakes (perhaps a legacy leadership behaviour), then no amount of skill building and training will help them to adopt a customer first approach. If leaders continue to recognise and promote employees based on outdated values on “following orders” instead of “speaking up” because they still buy into these outdated values, then a culture of innovation will be undermined and the change will eventually fail.
Where organisations get stuck:
Leaders don’t pay attention to the internal and individual quadrant of change. Most leaders who invest in development only pay attention to the external elements of change. They assume the change resides outside of them which is the opposite of accountability. Put more plainly, they unconsciously believe that everything and everyone else has to change except for them. However, when organisations transform, they are upgrading to a way of operating that is more mature, conscious, and unknown to even the highest level of leadership. This demands that leaders driving the change double down on their own accountability and develop themselves as individuals so that they can be best prepared to lead and role model the change.
Leaders lose interest or attention in the change. Many western cultures value fast pace, innovation, and a short term horizon. This means that many change initiatives often become flavour of the month, which becomes extremely harmful to any future change. Employees become easily jaded or suspicious of change, waiting it out until their leaders inevitably lose interest. At its worst, change initiatives are introduced on top of one another, which leads to confusion and change fatigue. Investing in transformational change requires accountability, deep commitment, resilience, and a long term orientation. It also requires ongoing investment. It is not enough to launch a few training events to facilitate change. Rather, system-wide and holistic development programs must be put in place to support people over the long term.
Organisations overinvest in change agents and underinvest in leadership development Most changes that are introduced by leadership are swiftly handed over to a change team, removing leadership accountability and visibility for driving and role modeling the change agenda. The change becomes “business as usual” and leaders then move onto other initiatives. This unfairly puts the pressure or accountability of change on agents or people with the formal title of “change manager”. However, change is a leadership mandate and leaders must stay accountable for playing a very active role in it.
Leaders make excuses for an overly polite culture. Most people lean towards being conflict avoidant or conflict neutral at best. Most organisations I’ve worked within have extremely polite cultures – mostly because they are people oriented and complex organsiations that require strong relationships to get things done. Because of this, there is an aversion to any behaviour that might cause strife in a relationship. However, this approach is counter intuitive as when we are clear and compassionate with our expectations and feedback and let people know where they stand, we can actually strengthen relationships. As Brene Brown states in her research on effective leadership, “clear is kind.”
Ideas on where to start:
Recognition programs are a great way to start to build visibility into evidence of accountability being taken and positive change that supports your transformation. For example, if you are building a customer centric culture, start rewarding your employees who demonstrate this by calling out their efforts and achievements. Feature them in newsletters, on panels, etc. Share their stories widely to give people an example of what type of change you are looking for. Show your employees you take the change seriously! This is one of the most positive and powerful ways to sustain change.
Form a buddy system or coaching circles. Anytime adults are asked to demonstrate new behaviours or skills, it can trigger fear. Thoughts such as “What if I can’t do it? What if I’m clumsy or look stupid?” start to paralyse people from even trying. Social learning is a powerful way to give people the support and confidence they need to try it out and normalise the fact that these skills are new and people will inevitably feel a bit clumsy. In buddy systems or coaching circles, people can practice giving feedback and accountability in a safe, structured, and supportive way.
Embedding into formal HR processes. If the expectations of change have been clearly communicated, organisations can begin to think about how to embed these expectations in formal HR talent processes, including performance and developmental processes, recruiting for talent, remuneration, and promotion processes. This is only appropriate when the expectations have been clear and you have given people ample time to practice. If you start to embed processes too early before people have clumsily made their way through the learning curve, it may scare people off from even trying new things to be careful not to introduce formal processes too early.
Taking a more modern and relevant approach to transformational change is your best chance at making the changes stick and energising people around topics that should matter dearly to them – how they and others treat each other and behave at work. Let us make change accessible and fun.