Organizational change requires leaders to pivot to new priorities, delegate old ones, and shift the way they interact with their teams. Over the past 30 years of consulting, teaching, and coaching, however, I’ve found that leaders often pay little attention to how they’ll develop the specific behaviors required to lead organizational change, potentially derailing new initiatives.
It makes sense that leaders would rely on the behaviors that got them to where they are in the first place. But to be successful at leading change, they must learn to recognize and act when it’s necessary to evolve their own behaviors.
Peter lost his job as CEO because the transformation project he was leading didn’t deliver results. Naomi wasn’t promoted when her attempts at changing her new company’s culture took longer than anticipated. Youssef almost left the company he had been with for his entire career because of what he perceived as a misalignment in values.
Each explained their suboptimal experiences differently. Peter said that poor market conditions in his country rendered the company’s revenue projections infeasible. Naomi thought that a hot job market in her country caused higher-than-expected turnover on her team, slowing culture change. Youssef blamed the more transactional values of the younger generation of leaders he worked with for his inability to fit in.
All three, however, didn’t realize how they had contributed to their own problems.
To succeed, Peter needed to focus solely on reducing organizational inefficiencies, leaving revenue in the hands of his sales lead. This new division of labor worked until they lost a major deal. That prompted Peter to get involved with sales again, reducing his attention on inefficiencies, and the organization fell behind on both sales and efficiency targets.
Naomi was hired to transform the culture of her new team from a bureaucratic, order-filling mindset to an agile, customer-responsive one. She knew she could only do this by listening to and assuaging her team’s concerns about the changes. Yet, facing high turnover, her patience flagged, and she reverted to more directive leadership, causing even more turnover.
Youssef took a country manager’s position in his company to move closer to his extended family. He had previously held a more senior global role in the company. He didn’t mind the lower compensation and felt grateful that the company allowed him flexibility. However, he didn’t stop to think about how he would need to behave with new superiors who were younger and less experienced than him.
Changing Behavior Is a Process
Peter, Naomi, and Youssef all failed to pay attention to how they needed to change their own behavior. Peter and Naomi needed to change in order to successfully execute transformation projects. Youssef needed to adapt to a new role.
Changing behavior can be hard, as anyone who has tried it can attest. This article outlines a four-step process to help you change your behavior when needed. I’ve used this successfully with both leaders and teams in my private practice and in multiple executive programs.
Step 1: Increase Your Self-Awareness
Leaders can only change their behavior when they’re aware of how it’s perceived by others and of the thoughts and feelings they experience as they attempt to change.
Peter had been unaware that his board suggested he focus on cost efficiencies because they perceived him to be the bottleneck in the sales process. Had he known, he might have reconsidered stepping back into sales.
Losing his job shook Peter. “I don’t want that to happen again,” he said to me as he contemplated future job opportunities. “When times were good, I used to ask my team for feedback on my behavior. When things got tough, I stopped. I told myself I was too busy. Maybe I didn’t want to hear what I subconsciously knew they would say to me.”
Peter was making two important observations about self-awareness. First, leaders need to regularly seek feedback on how they’re perceived, not leave it in the hands of external circumstances. Second, they need to be wary of thoughts and feelings that suggest that feedback is either unnecessary or inappropriate. Noticing such thoughts is the first step to overcoming them.
Step 2: Make Commitments
While awareness of how others perceive us can itself be a change catalyst (hence the saying “the most powerful driver of change is a mirror”), making commitments to others raises the likelihood of success.
Naomi faced a choice when she learned she wouldn’t be promoted. She could look for another job, or she could stay, get better at driving culture change, and hope to be promoted in the future. She chose to do the latter.
Naomi felt she jumped to solutions without listening carefully because of her inordinate fear of “wasting time.” She needed help to listen more. So she made a public commitment to her direct reports. “I promise to listen more,” she said. “I think it will help us make changes more effectively. But I need your help.” She asked her team to call her out when she didn’t listen.
In the weeks that followed, the memory of her commitment frequently restrained her when she felt the urge to switch to problem-solving. When she did unwittingly bark out a solution, her team members responded by smiling and saying ,“You said you would listen!”
Step 3: Overcome Interference
Despite credible intentions to change, leaders may struggle when they encounter thoughts that derail their intentions.
Youssef’s new country manager role was two steps below his previous global marketing role. He prepared by meeting his new boss before taking the job and discussing how they could work together. But he didn’t anticipate his reactions to comments from his new colleagues that criticized policies he had previously contributed to.
His boss criticized the company policy requiring all regions to sell a new product, saying it didn’t reflect the reality of their region. Youssef reacted defensively because he had previously promoted the policy. “Headquarters understands differences between regions,” he responded, “but they still need to incentivize new product sales. If not, regions might not push these potentially valuable products sufficiently.”
His boss and colleagues felt Youssef was talking down to them. They were struggling to sell expensive new products in their highly price-sensitive region and felt Youssef could be more supportive.
But Youssef’s reaction was influenced by thoughts he barely noticed. “I’ve worked in headquarters and understand corporate strategy better than you,” was one. “How dare you suggest our policies were thoughtless,” was another. Lying just under the surface of his consciousness, these thoughts interfered with his desire to be supportive and evoked unproductive, defensive reactions.
I introduced Youssef to ACT, a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and showed him how he could “defuse” his thoughts. A simple way to do this is by closing your eyes and imagining you’re looking at a thought as if it’s appearing on a screen in front of you. The thought that seemed to trigger Youssef the most was “I understand this company’s values better than you.”
By defusing this and related thoughts, Youssef was able to create a gap between comments that provoked him and his reaction, making for more productive conversations. From coming close to wanting to quit, Youssef found himself instead evolving into the role of a mentor for younger colleagues who wanted to learn from his experience at headquarters — all thanks to mitigating the effects of thoughts he had barely noticed before.
Step 4: Practice
Rarely do leaders find they can set a personal change objective, choose a path, and execute with no trouble. Successful change usually arises from trial and error, which takes deliberate practice. Leaders do better when they practice small, needed changes deliberately, learning from the experience, rather than aiming for a big bang of all needed changes.
Naomi knew that listening to her team was just one of several new behaviors she needed to adopt. She also needed to stop micromanaging, delegate more, and give her team greater agency. She knew she would find these behaviors difficult, so she practiced small changes periodically.
She might begin a team meeting with a quick round of issues that team members would like to bring to the table, or ask a team member to lead a meeting instead of her. These little changes offered her opportunities to learn not just how the team functioned but also how she would react. Over time, Naomi and her team converged on a working pattern more conducive to the cultural changes her company wanted to see.
. . .
Behavior change is hard, but it’s a skill leaders who want to succeed amid near-constant organizational change need to develop. By increasing their self-awareness, committing to change, overcoming limiting thoughts, and deliberately practicing new behaviors, leaders raise the likelihood that the change initiatives they’re tasked to lead will be successful.