As we near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizational leaders will be increasingly challenged to define and achieve a new normal. The question is not so much whether to change, but how to do so effectively. The answer won’t be found in a set of best practices or a step-by-step model of change. Unfortunately, there are no proven prescriptions for change success in all circumstances 1. Rather, the key to successful change leadership is rooted in the understanding that, if we are going to ask others to change to support the organization's shifting vision and ambitions, leaders also need to be willing to change themselves.
I’m not suggesting that in order to guide change all leaders need to undertake a program of deep introspection and personal transformation. (Although that is not always a bad idea 2.) Rather, it’s about understanding that by its very nature, organizational change entails altering the status quo – shifting the norms and agreements in organizations about what we do and how we do it 3. Therefore, as leaders, we must at least be willing to consider shifting our preferences and approaches to make the space necessary for change to take place.
For some of us, the status quo approach to organizational change involves pointing in the direction we are headed and expecting others to follow – full stop. If this sounds like a 1950s approach to leadership that wouldn’t happen today, think again.
Consider the recent case of AbeBooks, an online marketplace for rare books. According to news reports 4, the company sent a three-line email to some of its sellers announcing a change to its business policies. In a matter of weeks, it ended up being boycotted by nearly all its sellers worldwide. Why? 5
This policy change cut off access to the global marketplace for its booksellers in five countries. It was a direct threat to their livelihoods 5. Perhaps even more consequential to the company was that the move was also perceived as a threat by sellers that were not even impacted by the policy change. The interpretation seems to have been, ‘if it could happen to them, it could happen to us.’ Given this, the lack of empathy and any meaningful explanations provided by the company when announcing the change, was, apparently, enough to spur the international boycott 6 7.
While we can’t know for sure what the good folks at AbeBooks were thinking, it seems possible they failed to fully consider what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of this change. At the very least, it appears they underestimated the importance of acknowledging these impacts when interacting with the sellers.
The regrettable part of this story is that much of it was foreseeable, at least for those of us familiar with change research.
Several experiments 8 9 have tested what happens in organizations when leaders fail to explain why we need to change, provide insight on how decisions were made or treat people respectfully during the process. In such experiments, job satisfaction, trust, commitment and even performance not only dipped initially but continued to worsen. Some of these studies were even done in environments where limited information sharing was the norm 8.
Conversely, these experiments and other studies indicate that when organizations invest in things such as deliberate planning 10, explaining the reasons for the change 11 and providing opportunities for questions, feedback and support 12 13, it’s reasonable to expect adverse employee reactions to stabilize over time 8 9, if not shift to more positive perceptions of the change 11 14.
What’s more, we even understand, at least in part, why this is true. It has to do with perceptions of fairness and its role in organizations.
Fairness takes different forms in business. The one we most often think of relates to gains or losses. This is known as distributive fairness 15. In the context of change, this usually involves shifts in power, autonomy, money or time. In the case of AbeBooks, the ‘loss’ experienced by some of the sellers was to be cut off from a major market for their rare books.
Leaders typically have the discretion to ensure some degree of equity in such outcomes 14. However, in cases where it isn’t possible (or prioritized) to alter what we are doing, research indicates organizations can still cushion the blow of such losses by focusing on how we do it 10 16 17 18. These relate to how decisions are made (procedural fairness), how information is shared (informational fairness) and how people are treated (interpersonal fairness) 19.
The AbeBooks example demonstrates this, as well. Consider that even though sellers in just five countries anticipated a direct loss from the policy change, sellers in 26 countries joined the boycott. This suggests that the negative response to the change was as much about how it was carried out – with limited explanation and empathy for those impacted – as it was about the change itself. One person involved stated as much, noting, ‘The booksellers wish to send a clear message that they resent the short notice given to our colleagues affected by this decision and for the lack of information regarding why this decision was reached. It is felt that this decision was made without any understanding of the human cost involved.’ 20
Thus, even if we operate in strongly hierarchical organizations, where limited transparency is standard, when introducing a significant organizational change, we may need to reconsider the wisdom of our status quo approach.
But what if the status quo in our organization encompasses all of the good practices related to information sharing, explanations, employee participation and empathy that we just discussed? Are we good to go?
Maybe, but maybe not.
It’s common, but a mistake, to think that what worked in the past will work now, or what was effective when we worked for one organization will automatically be effective when we shift to another. The reason is organizational context, which relates to the myriad internal and external factors that influence any given change.
Organizational context is best thought of as dynamic, rather than stable. Therefore, when we contemplate an organizational change of any significance, it’s wise to analyze the given context with the goal of identifying the headwinds and tailwinds that will influence the change 21 22. We should design our approach to take advantage of the tailwinds: the aspects of our current organizational context that support or enable the change. Headwinds are the forces that may work against our change efforts. Therefore, we need to tailor our change methods to counteract these in some way.
Contextual factors that can act as headwinds or tailwinds include things like the current level of trust in the organization or the impacted teams, the resources available to support the change effort and the level of relevant skill and expertise related to the change being undertaken. When designing our change management approach, we should also be mindful of the organization’s recent history with change and other changes being implemented concurrently 10 22.
If recent changes were dismal failures, we should mitigate that by differentiating the current effort and approach from the previous efforts. However, if they were wildly successful, that’s something we can leverage. For example, we might be explicit about how we are applying learning from those efforts in the current change approach. Finally, there is likely a limit to the number of simultaneous changes that any organization can absorb. When the change landscape is crowded, leaders should consider prioritizing and sequencing changes to avoid overload, which may put the success of the entire change portfolio at risk 22.
Change research suggests a few other adaptations that might be necessary for different situations. For instance, defined challenges with clear technical solutions may benefit from more straightforward leadership direction, less employee participation or debate, and defined performance goals. However, changes that require innovation, or for which the way forward is uncertain, may require different types of leadership, greater levels of participation and tolerance for learning (and mistakes) before achieving performance 2 23 24 25.
Organizational change is a complex undertaking. Therefore, doing change ‘right’ requires us to do an assortment of things correctly. As discussed, these include considering the full range of impacts of the change, providing information and explanations to those impacted and acknowledging the difficulties, not merely the opportunities, of changing. (There are still many more that we haven’t even touched on in this article.) For some leaders, embracing the fact that they need to do such things is a stretch, but one they likely need to make if they are serious about bringing about even minor transformations in their organizations. Even for those more accustomed to these aspects of change leadership, blindly doing them the way we’ve always done them is no guarantee for success. Organizational change is challenging for many reasons, perhaps none more so than its demand that we not only identify the shifts others must make to enable success, but also be willing to make them ourselves.
Wendy Hirsch helps organizations turn their great ideas into great achievements by mastering the art and science of change. She is the author of The Implementer’s Starter Kit and writes about evidenced-based change management for ScienceForWork.com and on her blog at wendyhirsch.com.
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