We were recently engaged by a Fortune 50 company to lead a change offsite for 50 key leaders tasked to improve customer service. The organisation’s reputation has been sullied over the years due to many initiatives in this area with very little improvement. We spent several days with these leaders in open conversation about the issues, recommendations to improve the systems, and changes to people and processes. Part way through the offsite, we were feeling good about the recommendations and that the proposed changes would be successful. After a break, one courageous leader raised his hand and said there was still an undiscussed ‘elephant in the room,’ and that nothing would change unless we dealt with it. We all felt a little deflated given that we had previously felt assured of success.
Over the years, we have discovered that this scenario is present in most change efforts and is rarely surfaced. Why? Traditional programmatic change processes don’t always focus on the cultural aspects of change. Until the underlying forces in the culture are addressed, improvement will be elusive. Cultural and psychological restraining forces in a change effort show up as lack of trust, lack of respect, lack of empowerment, and lack of alignment. Until leaders engage key stakeholders in a manner that engenders openness and candour, allegiance and commitment to the change will stagnate and the change effort will fail.
To surface these kinds of issues is the ‘power play extraordinaire.’ Without it, the change initiative is at risk of not yielding lasting change. This power play consists of several moves a skilled change leader would make: 1. Recognise that undiscussables actually exist and acknowledge them publicly. 2. Slow down the change process to give people time to have meaningful discussions. 3. ‘Mine for conflict’ and dissenting opinions in a skilful manner so that even in a culture of fear and retaliation, employees will be courageous enough to speak out. 4. Be skilful in listening and appreciating another point of view. 5. Address the issues that surface purposefully with high transparency and accountability. 6. Find solutions that will not only address the ‘elephants in the room,’ but that will also preserve and strengthen the relationships in the group.
Only when underlying cultural issues have been addressed can the programmatic elements of change gain traction to improve the organisation for the better. In the example we described above, we spent a full day dealing with the issue that was raised in open forum. Months later, the organisation started to change and their customer service was getting better. This powerful move is very seldom understood. It can be seen as counter-cultural and requires courage, high levels of facilitation and listening skills, and a willingness to slow down the process. But the benefits of this play are enormous! Not only will this move help leaders improve business performance, but it will also restore trust and build a culture of engagement for the future.
R. Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio are the authors of the new book Change the Way You Change! 5 Roles of Leaders Who Accelerate Business Performance. As members of the Duke Corporate Education Faculty Network, they help leaders around the world navigate change, improve employee engagement, transform culture, and increase leadership capability.
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