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Leading change: Two monologues don’t make a dialogue

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If we perpetuate the myths around change, failures will continue to follow as night follows day, cautions Alex Swarbrick, regional director, Asia Pacific, Roffey Park Institute.

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech will stick with us for a while yet. And quite rightly. Both for concerns about his health, and for the message itself. His three big questions shone the spotlight on the agenda facing usas a society and facing our organisations.

As Brit living in Singapore, my ear’s pricked up at the PM’s lessons from Brexit. But as someone in the business of organisational change, what really grabbed my attention were the lessons from Uber; lessons about how we lead and participate in the changes transforming business.

Roffey Park undertakes an annual survey of the challenges facing organisations, leaders, and HR. With over 2000 respondents this year, the findings are hard to ignore.

Asked what motivates you at work, the number one response in Singapore (73%) was ‘good leadership’. When we asked those leaders their top three challenges, number one was ‘managing change’. And when we asked HR people “which HR technical skills do you believe are the most important for an HR professional to possess?” number one was ‘change management and culture change’.

Not surprised? Nothing new? So, if we know what we need to get better at, why is how we manage change so slow to change?

Part of the answer is in the myths we perpetuate about change; that organisations are like machines, that ‘disruptive’ change can be managed like a project, and myths about those who resist change.

And if we perpetuate these myths, failures will continue to follow as night follows day.

Three tips:

  • Know your change
  • Mind your language
  • Welcome your resisters
The myths we perpetuate about change: that organisations are like machines, that ‘disruptive’ change can be managed like a project, and myths about those who resist change.

Know your change

Think about ‘leading change’ rather than ‘managing change. ‘Managing change’ sounds like project management, a logical linear rational process, with a starting problem and a pre-determined objective.  Some changes are like that. They’ve been described as ‘Technical Changes’ [1].

But not the changes the PM was referring to when he talked of ‘disruption’. These are complex unpredictable changes shaped by globalisation, by technology, by events in the social and political environment. They’ve been described as ‘Adaptive Challenges’[2] as ‘murky systemic problems with no easy answers.”

Pretending they can be ‘managed’ like technical problems doesn’t work. Instead of leaders providing solutions, Adaptive Challenges require asking tough questions, involving people throughout your organisation. And it’s tough on employees too, requiring new and unfamiliar ways of thinking and working.

All round, it takes creative and attentive dialogue; creative about possibilities, and attentive to what people are anticipating and perhaps initially fearing.

Talking about Singapore’s retail business, the PM made this clear;“As retail gets disrupted, we have to anticipate what is coming, we have to help companies and workers to adapt. But it is not just doom and gloom because when you disrupt, you also create new jobs.”

It takes dialogue, not two monologues and first, requires you to know the type up change you’re dealing with.

Mind your language

Language matters. These adaptive changes only occur when every day thinking changes. And thinking changes when the narrative changes, which requires different language. Then new thinking leads to alternative choices and new possibilities. [3]

‘Managing change’ sounds like project management, a logical linear rational process, with a starting problem and a pre-determined objective.

But it’s not always easy. As HR and management professionals we’ve first got 100 years of physics vocabulary to change; ‘pulling leavers and pressing the right buttons’, ‘force and resistance’, even ‘rolling out a change’ as if navigating an Adaptive Challenge is anything like laying a carpet.

Even linear, top-down language of ‘change agent’ and ‘change recipient’ implies a doer and a done to; one with power and choice and one with neither. Yet we know that middle managers especially are at the same time change brokers, change catalysts, change initiators and change enactors.

So if the changes the PM was talking about require new thinking, then minding the language we use, our narrative about organisations, change and even those participating in the change can make a difference to how people think and act.

Welcome your resisters

Resistance is another of those physics terms that no longer help.

I know you’ll have experienced ‘resistance’, and I’d be surprised if others haven’t experienced it in you. I’ve even heard senior managers dismiss a whole level in the organisation as ‘permafrost’; a layer of impenetrable resistance to change.

But as HR professionals, and leaders of change, if we’re content to disregard this phenomenon simply as ‘resistance to change’ we’re making a big mistake. We create an organisational risk by ignoring the rich data that, if we understood what’s behind stakeholders’ resistance, could be help the change be more successful.

So, here’s a challenge; from today, see resistance to change as something to be understood not overcome.

Roffey Park works with many organisations and individuals navigating complex changes. When I speak to individuals categorised by their managers as ‘resistant to change’, I find that whatever else they were resisting, it wasn’t ‘change’.

Some resisted ill-conceived plans that were detrimental to clients and the business; some ‘resisters’ anticipated a compromiseto their professional integrity. The result when they were ignored? Low morale and disengagement.

Here’s a challenge; from today, see resistance to change as something to be understood not overcome.

When I’ve asked ‘change resisters’ what would have made the difference for them in how the change was led, typically the answer is ‘talk to us; listen to us.’ As the PM said about Uber and taxi drivers‘…..I talked to them directly and they asked what is going to happen? Will they still have a livelihood?… They have talked to us, they have made useful recommendations on how to level the playing field….’Some writers maintain that where there’s no resistance there’s no engagement.

So, welcome your resisters, mind your language, and know the kind of change you’re dealing with. And that all takes dialogue not monologue.

[1] The Work of Leadership by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie (2002)
[2] Heifetz and Laurie (2002)
[3] Gervase R. Bushe (2013) Dialogic OD: A Theory of Practice. (OD Practitioner Vol.45 No 1. 2013)

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