Redefining change leadership

Change leadership starts after the change has been identified, scoped, and planned.

And yes, I mean that.

Identifying the need for change – recognizing that something must become different for the organization to continue to thrive, grow, and succeed – is a function of executive leadership and strategy.

Scoping the change – defining its parameters, boundaries, and desired outcome – is also part of executive leadership and strategy.

And the initial stages of planning – identifying the implementation team, understanding the timeline and necessary resources – is part of executive leadership and high-level tactics.

Change leadership is about boots on the ground

Defining the change is strategic leadership.

Implementing the change requires change leadership and change management. Both are necessary, neither are sufficient for success by themselves.

Change management = planning + timeline + resources.

“You don’t manage people, you manage things; you lead people.” ~ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Change leadership = neuroscience + identity + environment.

Change management is the practical aspect of getting change to happen. Who, doing what, by when, with which resources.

Change leadership is the people aspect of getting change to happen. Overcoming resistance, understanding motivation, shifting what keeps people – and therefore organizations – stuck.

Change leadership is about resilience and response, versus anxiety and reactivity.

There are three primary elements of change leadership, each with its own set of skills and tools.

Neuroscience

“We want to believe that we’re cognitive beings who on occasion feel emotion, but neurobiologically we’re actually emotional beings who on occasion think.” ~ Brené Brown, author, speaker, researcher

Neuroscience teaches us that the brain hates change and loves habit and routine. Building new neural pathways – essential to change and learning – takes energy and creates awkwardness and uncertainty, which we don’t typically enjoy (to say the least).

Neuroscience also teaches us that we are emotional creatures; we make choices emotionally and then justify them rationally, no matter how much we might like to believe otherwise. Research tells us over and over again that people who have suffered brain damage or mental illness that disconnects them from their emotions struggle to make any decisions at all, never mind good decisions.

The so-called “amygdala hijack” effect is real, and it can run rampant in high-stress change situations. And there are a host of other neuroscientific realities that create resistance – if we don’t know about them or know the tools to work through them.

Understanding the neuroscience and how to support people through the emotional discomfort is a key skill for change leadership.

Identity

“Research shows that when people are resistant to change, it helps to reinforce what will stay the same. Visions for change are more compelling when they include visions of continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure.” ~ Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, researcher, author
The impact of identity on change – and the impact of change on identity – is huge, and is seldom acknowledged or managed.

We are powerfully committed to our identity, as individuals, as teams, and as organizations.

Change that threatens our sense of identity is change that will be resisted, though often unconsciously – and change almost always threatens our identity, in one way or another. As an organization, a change initiative asks us to think differently, act differently, do different things, than we did before. And whether this is necessary for the organization to succeed doesn’t matter as much as we would like it to!

Understanding the ways in which the change requires a shift in identity should also include understanding what will stay the same. Research tells us that this sense of continuity gives people a foundation on which they can stand even when things are shifting around them.

Today’s workforce is especially committed to identity, as evidenced by their demands for meaning and purpose in their work. Without assurance that this meaning and purpose will remain (and perhaps be enhanced) as the change progresses, they will resist and unconsciously (or even intentionally) undermine the change effort.

Understanding the implications of identity and identity management is the second key skill for change leadership.

Environment

“The way our environment is designed influences the way we choose to behave. Though our desire to accomplish a task may be sincere, our environment can either keep us engaged or distract us from our objective. Every element in our environment creates a frame of reference that we rely on to make decisions.” ~ YStudios, San Francisco design & research consultancy

The current environment is perfectly designed to keep us where we currently are.

We know from personal change efforts that – for instance – setting our running shoes and gym clothes out the night before, where we will literally trip over them in the morning, is helpful for getting us out the door to run. That’s an environmental adjustment supporting the change we want to make.

Changing the environment – which can be as simple as a (meaningful) visual reminder that we “trip” over repeatedly – helps keep people aware of and focused on what they need to do to continue moving forward.

Note that I say “meaningful”; all too often, communication (an aspect of environment) about change is reduced to rah-rah platitudes intended to raise excitement and motivation – but excitement and motivation can’t be maintained over a long-haul change initiative. And we’re all familiar with the eye-rollling cynicism that comes up when change initiatives are presented – let’s say – unskillfully!

Understanding the subtle implications and effects of the environment, and the ways in which the environment can be impacted (communication being only one factor, albeit an important one), is the third key skill for change leadership.

Change isn’t going away

“Although people yearn for a return to ‘normal’ or try to predict the ‘new normal,’ there is no such thing as normal. There’s only change. Never-ending, constant change. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but constant nonetheless. Once we realize that the ground beneath us isn’t stable – and never has been – we can relax, open ourselves to new possibilities, and lean into the beauty of not knowing.” ~ Ozan Varol, ex-rocket scientist, ex-law professor; speaker, author, consultant
If I were going to be flip, I’d say “change is the new black.”

But the reality is, it’s not new anything; change has always been with us. It’s not going to stop, the rate of change really is increasing, there is no “new normal,” there never really was a “normal” to begin with, we’re not going back to some mythical state of “normal,” and change has been, is, and always will be a part of life.

And yes, we’ve had our noses rubbed in it, rather painfully, in the last decade – divisive politics, a pandemic, climate change – and it’s natural to want to hunker down and wish that everything could go “back to normal.” But … it won’t. And to keep going, to keep our teams and our organizations going, we must learn the skills of change leadership.

This is not how change leadership is typically presented

But it’s a model of change leadership that addresses the ways in which individuals actually interact with change within organizations.

It’s a model of change leadership that addresses the reality that the implementation team manager – typically a first-line manager – is the one having to deal with the challenges of resistance in their team members, not to mention all the other people impacted by the change (it’s never just the implementation team!).

And it’s a model of change leadership that – when they learn the tools and skills associated with each of the three elements – allows them to lead change as well as manage the change project.

(The tools are simple, by the way. It’s not about becoming neuroscientists or interior designers!)


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