When people are asked to change, a lot rides on their willingness to trust those who are doing the asking. This is true across the spectrum of change – from asking your baby brother to taste a new type of food for the first time through to convincing 10 000 employees to follow the new strategy designed to save a failing organisation. In essence, you are asking that they make a transition from the known, tangible and familiar to an unknown, future situation where the only information they may have about the future and the process of transition is what they are told by those who want them to change.
In this process, many questions typically emerge, questions like: “why do you want me to do this?”, “what will happen to me?”, “can I believe what you tell me?”, “are you telling me everything?”, and “can I count on you to help me to do this?”. Until people get to experience the change (and the associated consequences) for themselves, they have to rely in large part on the information shared with them by those who want to bring the change about. The extent to which they will be willing to do this will be directly related to trust, which will in turn be based on their past experience of those who are asking them to change. If in the past it has been your habit to play nasty tricks on your baby brother, he may choose not to trust you this time, and consequently (and thankfully) may refuse to try the spoonful of wasabi paste you are so earnestly offering. Similarly, if your organisation’s change history is littered with perceived instances of betrayal and duplicity, stakeholders may become very cynical and be wary of those who ask them to change, sometimes to the point that they actively and automatically undermine and/or resist organisational change.
A major precondition for efficient, effective and sustainable change is therefore the trustworthiness of those who are leading the change. We know that it takes time and consistent behaviour to establish trust, and only one incident to destroy it. Let’s briefly examine some common pitfalls that should be avoided in this regard by using some real-life (but suitably disguised) examples:
Not saying it like it is
This seems like such an obvious thing to avoid, but it is one of the areas where change leadership most frequently trips up, particularly in situations where the implications of change may be unpopular or may result in negative outcomes for some stakeholders. In one example, a large utilities company was implementing a new financial system. One of the clear benefits of this implementation was that it would result in a significant reduction in administrative activities, particularly in the regional offices. This would inevitably also result in a reduction in headcount. From the outset, it was apparent that leadership felt very uncomfortable with this – while the cost savings benefit was very appealing, the practical implications and associated pain of a major retrenchment exercise was not. Consequently, the leadership team shied away from this issue: In all formal communication about the project, the greater efficiency of the new system was lauded, but the topic of headcount reduction was studiously avoided. Unsurprisingly, employees were quick to figure out what the real implications of the implementation would be, and the rumour mill – vastly overestimating the likely extent of retrenchments – went into overdrive. A major groundswell of resistance developed, which resulted in poor project participation, very low training attendance figures, and the resignation of several of the most competent regional financial staff members who decided to seek a more certain future elsewhere. In the end, a formal retrenchment exercise was launched shortly after the delayed and much compromised “go-live” of the new system, resulting in much bitterness.
By delaying the sharing of “bad news”, this leadership team made the eventual impact much, much worse. They might have believed that they acted in good faith, trying to shield employees from the negative implications of the project and avoiding turbulence as far as possible, but in reality a far better approach would have been to face up to the reality, share this as transparently and clearly as possible, and enter into a more pro-active and constructive process with those who would ultimately be affected. In not choosing this latter option, they did their own organisation, and those who were eventually retrenched a great disservice. This also led to a major breakdown of trust, which would hold severe implications for future change initiatives and for ongoing employee engagement.
Failing to keep it real
Another common pitfall is the over-hyping of change initiatives. It is a matter of common sense that what is communicated should always remain realistic within a context determined by the target audience. However, change leaders often automatically revert to a “hard sell” mindset (and may sometimes also be misadvised in this regard by change practitioners) – this leads to overblown, direct, overt and high-pressure “selling” techniques, which often do not take stakeholder perspectives and realities into consideration and consequently fail to deliver the desired outcomes. For example, with the imminent implementation of a new payroll and human resources administration system, the project sponsor (poorly advised by an overzealous external consultant) sent out an announcement to the entire organisation, lauding this as a “very exciting initiative” and referring to the “major benefits that will result from this”. In steering committee meetings, senior leaders also adopted this language, frequently referring to the “level of excitement” among stakeholders, and exhorting the change management team to greater efforts to generate even more excitement (which resulted in a flurry of “motivational” posters, a barrage of spectacularly formatted e-mail messages, several pamphlet campaigns and a succession of town meetings where there was a lot of talking but little said). The steering committee was well pleased by all of this, and congratulated the change team on a job well done. Of course, for most people in the organisation (even including many of the human resources team), the implementation of this new system was hardly exciting, rating somewhere between discovering a long-lost after dinner mint in a coat pocket and a colleague bringing chocolate cake to work for her birthday. They therefore looked at the overblown communications askance, secretly wondering “what are they smoking?”.
When change leadership do not keep their feet firmly on realistic ground, they run the risk of losing credibility with stakeholders, who then naturally question their judgement and motives.
Not truly respecting people
Respect is a cornerstone of trust – it is impossible to trust someone if you don’t believe that they respect you as an individual. Such respect requires understanding, empathy, congruence and acceptance. The pressurised nature of many large change initiatives and the associated tendency to work with stakeholders in clusters for the sake of efficiency can work against this, undermining the respect accorded to individuals.
A prime (and shameful) example of this is a “stakeholder analysis” template provided by an external consulting firm engaged in a major change initiative at a large manufacturing company: The template has four quadrants, defined by the level of influence that stakeholders have on the initiative, and the extent of impact that the initiative will have on stakeholders. For each quadrant, a generic stakeholder management strategy is suggested. The suggested strategy for the upper left quadrant – where stakeholders have little influence, but will experience major impact – is “Keep Happy”. This supposed “expert” guidance is at significant odds with the global body of knowledge and good practice on how best to assist those dealing with major change, and it can lead to very condescending, manipulative and ultimately inappropriate and counterproductive interventions. On a more fundamental level, it is entirely devoid of respect for those who will be significantly impacted yet have little influence – exactly the group that principled change leaders and facilitators should care the most about (if not from a sense of professional ethics, then at least from the sobering realisation that ALL of us are from time to time in this quadrant, when we face the loss of loved ones, major illness, or any of the other calamities that life has waiting for all of us). To provide further context, this particular change initiative led to major restructuring and redefinition of roles and jobs – the people impact was very significant, involving promotions, demotions, retrenchments and physical relocation, and often affecting stakeholders with a long and distinguished service history. The “Keep Happy” strategy would certainly not serve individuals dealing with this type of change – in actual fact, it would significantly hinder them in their process of coming to terms with the change, and it would rapidly erode their trust in those who try to “keep them happy”.
Effective change leaders must constantly focus on establishing and maintaining the trust of those they seek to lead. This may be the single most important factor in their effectiveness as change leaders, and in an organisational environment where there are very many different perspectives and interests, and where the pace and complexity of change is ever increasing, possibly also the most difficult to achieve. The best approach to this has to involve a strong emphasis of the fundamentals – an exclusively outward journey into change management methodologies, facilitation techniques, consultation with advisors and advanced business school programmes will not be sufficient in itself, and in some cases may even take change leaders further away from where they should be. There should always also be an inward journey into the truth of the self, for when it comes to establishing trust, no methodology, intervention or technique will work if it does not truly come from within. In times of organisational change, all eyes turn to leadership, and in the words of Coco Chanel – “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.”