A well-known paradox states that the only thing that remains the same is change. Most leaders agree. Businesses are, and always have been, subjected to the influences of technology, economies, politics, competition and the culture. Change is unavoidable. The most successful companies are led by people who recognize the need for change and manage it well. Alternatively, those who cannot will subject their organizations to the risks of failure.
Implementing change is a significant aspect of leading organizations, in some ways more critical than many traditional areas. In the organizations where I consult, some necessary changes are minor, while others are major. Mergers or acquisitions rank in the major-change category, as does rebranding or downsizing.
The way that change is managed can ruin the most passionate dreams of accomplishing it. Studies show that a vast majority of projects involving change don’t succeed. The estimates vary between 60 and 80 percent. Failures in the change process result in large wastes of capital and time, and may send a company backwards from the position it started in.
Evaluations of corporate change reveal something else: the major factor in successful change management is internal to the company, not an influence from the outside. This applies to the organization, as well as the top leader. According to a Harvard Business Review article by organizational change expert Edith Onderick-Harvey, the leader’s behavior is the most critical distinguishing element determining success or failure.
Communication is Critical
Surveys and studies confirm that the most important aspect of organizational change is keeping everyone involved and informed. That requires meaningful and continuous communication. Leaders who want to achieve successful change must have strong communication skills. They must be people-oriented.
Employees who comment on their organization’s inability to implement change point to how they were not properly informed, directed or trained regarding the change process. Their leaders attempted to implement change from behind the scenes, hoping everyone would fall in line. This doesn’t happen naturally.
You see, most people like a predictable and reliable environment, where personal comfort and familiarity provide a sense of safety. For many, change presents risks that take them out of their comfort zones. Risks threaten positions of influence, authority, competency or rewards. Change poses a potential for failure, or the possibility of being worse off than before. That’s why change is resisted.
Staff needs thorough connectedness with leadership to overcome fear of change. Leaders must reach out to their people to convey the need for change with rationale and reasons. They need to set the vision, tout the benefits and lay out the course in a way that compels people to buy into the program. Leaders who effectively implement change are focused on their people as much as the change itself.
Effective change agents understand the perceptions and impacts of change. They care about people and engage them from beginning to end, involving them in every step. This includes the following, all calling for communicative behavior:
- Introduction with compelling presentations that lay out the need for change and how it will be accomplished
- Assurance that the needs of the employees are vitally important, and their roles will be enhanced or improved
- Continuous updates on how things are going and what the timeline looks like
- Encouragement for people to stay positive and enthused
- Requests for feedback and opportunities to answer questions, address concerns and revise the plan if needed
- Empowerment of others to engage in and contribute to the process