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Rethinking organizational change management


Change is constant.Everyone of us has been in a situation where a shift in our lives or surroundings has happened, leaving us feeling anxious or excited, but expectant of things to come.

The concept of change has been underlying most things in my life for the last year, since I moved country. Even though the cultural change from one Scandinavian country to another has not been too drastic, every change situation, big or small, is always a situation of discomfort. That is just how our brains work.

Our brains are extremely effective in tenaciously maintaining the status quo. At the same time, we wouldn’t be human if we couldn’t change. Human society is one of constant change and reinvention. As modern humans we are geared to life-long learning and growth.

Why is change often a situation of discomfort?

According to neuroscientific research, even when faced with a life-threatening situation, people tend to resist change despite knowing the repercussions. At the heart of this resistance and overcoming it, is the difficulty of changing ones’ behavior.

The design of the brain may predispose us to taking the easy way out and another function to resist change. Much of what we do on a daily basis happens without thinking—driving a car, browsing the supermarket aisle or running a meeting.These simple behaviours have been shaped by repeated training and experience making them habitual.

Fear is a good servant but a bad master

As creatures of habit, in the early days of human kind, survival depended on our ability to detect errors in our environment and react quickly and instinctively to avoid threat. We still have much of the same brain as our ancestors had: when something changes, our brains perceive a difference between what we expect and what occurs. A rapid-fire signal is produced and we become afraid.

Fear is one of our best weapons against danger. It can also negatively hold us back, because it keeps us from exploring the unknown or trying something new.

Professors Gilles Hillary from the INSEAD graduate business school and Managing Director Vip Viyas have found that fear as an emotion, significantly effects not only organisations, but management styles as well. It is not risk-management as some managers think, but something quite the opposite. For the organization it tends to have very negative impacts: fear kills initiative and pro-social behaviors. It suffocates innovation and undermines future growth.

Hillary and Viyas identified a predictable pattern of characteristics defining a change resistant or otherwise fearful organisation:

  • An absence of frank and open dialogue. For example, when important conversations happen either before or after meetings, but everyone remains silent during official discussions.
  • A resistance to participate, for fear of being ridiculed, overlooked or “shot down”.
  • Only notional alignment (“lip-service”) on action plans, underpinned by a collective belief that those plans will be ineffective anyway.
  • A partial or total reluctance to pass any bad news upwards.
  • A culture of “going through the motions” without any real engagement; and
  • A focus on salient but unlikely catastrophic outcomes.

How then, can we as leaders use the emotions which make us human, to lead our organisations to a better future?

Changing the culture, changing the game

In their book “Change the Culture, Change the Game”, Roger Connors and Tom Smith, New York Times bestselling authors and management consultants, suggest one approach to leading change, addressing fear and peoples’ behaviour.

The Results pyramid- model they present in their book, is made up of three key components: experiences, beliefs and actions. Stacked on top of each other, the components all contribute to the end result, or the achievement of the organization.

In short: experiences promote beliefs, beliefs impact actions and actions generate results.

I’ve turned to their model as one option for leading change and trying to influence peoples’ behavior, particularly because it takes a very human, even neuroscientifically logical approach to change management.

Too often, leaders try to change the way people act to get the results they want, without working to change the way people think or what they believe. When this happens, only the top of the Results pyramid- model is being addressed – actions and results – while the two fundamental elements – experiences and beliefs are being neglected.

The experiences you provide create the beliefs people hold

A simple, powerful relationship exists between the beliefs people have and the actions they take. Their beliefs about how work should get done directly affect what they do. Changing people's beliefs about how they should do their daily work and helping them adopt the new beliefs they need to hold, will most likely produce the actions you need them to take. Appreciating how deeply and strongly people may hold a certain belief is crucial, as it dictates how much effort, energy, and attention it will take to shift.

The experiences that form the foundation of The Results Pyramid- model drive accelerated culture change. Whether you realize it or not, you provide experiences for everyone around you every day. Each interaction you have with others in an organization creates an experience that either enforces or undermines the beliefs you want people to have. Quite simply, the experiences you provide create the beliefs people hold.

Connors and Smith claim, that focusing on the foundation of The Results Pyramid- model and providing the right experiences, will change the way people think. If you change the way they think, then you can change the culture; and when you change the culture, you change the game.

Alignment is a process, not an event

Connors and Smith offer one simple concept to start with: alignment and thinking of it as a process, not an event. It is something you must constantly work to achieve as a leader through responsibility, responsiveness and facilitation.

First and foremost, as a change leader it is up to you to stay on top of everything going on as part of the change at every level. The responsibility for leadership and direction is yours, the saying too many cooks spoil the broth rings extremely true.

Responsiveness is also needed in any major change situation, as there will no doubt be criticism. Connors and Smith suggest four concrete steps to take in response to feedback, and to ensure everyone is aligned towards the same goals:

  1. Identify the beliefs you want others to share.
  2. Communicate these beliefs.
  3. Portray the experience you’re going to deliver to your employees.
  4. Ask and enroll employees in providing feedback of the planned experience.

Finally, you need to be able to facilitate meaningful dialogue about the culture change in your organization. This is best done by taking any means necessary to encourage dialogue, teamwork and collaboration.

Change is difficult. I see the difficulty and the opportunity it brings with it in my work on a daily basis. But by considering the relationships between experiences, beliefs, actions and results, steps can be taken toward building and then sustaining a new organizational culture.

Do you want to know more about how to accelerate change and growth in your organisation? We'd love to talk to you, get in touch: jenny.bjorklund@nordicmorning.com or contact me on Linkedin