Let me say at the start that I don’t know any perfect leaders or workplace change processes.
Change is often a work in progress. Some details emerge over time. And unexpected challenges are bound to arise.
Most people understand this. But they do tend to get frustrated with easily-avoidable mistakes made by many leaders.
Here are five of the most common ones:
- Not explaining why change is needed: People often ask, “Why are we doing this?” And in the absence of a good explanation, people will create one themselves. Unfortunately, their negativity bias kicks in and people often assume the worst – a cost-savings exercise, management have no idea, or, in the case of redundancies, ‘they want me out of this workplace’.
Often, leaders don’t adequately explain why change is needed as they believe the reasons are already well-understood. But this is not always the case. Good explanations tend to increase the rate of compliance. So leaders are right to say, for example, that with a new government comes different priorities. Or given wider trends in the sector, there are smarter ways to do things and we need to be open to change.
- Not selling the benefits: Leaders of change need to ‘sell’ the changes by speaking of the benefits. These could be the benefits to individuals (such as learning new skills and achieving best practice), the benefits to clients (through improved service delivery), or the benefits to the workplace overall by meeting accreditation requirements and being able to secure ongoing funding.
Sadly, some people need to be made uncomfortable with the status quo by highlighting the costs of no change, before they see the need for change. Although negative emotions can prompt movement, positive emotions tend to be more motivating over the long term.
- Poor communication: It is next to impossible to keep major change secret. When staff members have an idea that change is afoot and management is not being upfront about what they know, this approach only fuels gossip and burns trust in the leadership.
I also know of leaders who do not genuinely consult or collaborate with staff. When staff members feel like their comments or ideas are not properly considered, they tend to feel devalued, demotivated and disengaged.
One senior manager I know, asked a team leader to go through a process of consultation, but the decisions had already been made. He said that nothing staff would say would make a difference. The team leader refused to go through a token process. She negotiated being able to tell staff the changes were a fait accompli, but engaged them in a genuine process of how the changes could be implemented.
Communication also needs to be done in ways that are seen as respectful. One horror story I heard recently involved people finding out they were being made redundant when they spotted their names on a PowerPoint slide in a workplace change briefing session!
- Failing to plan for likely challenges: When leaders of change are not well-prepared for challenges, they find themselves responding defensively to complaints or criticisms when they are voiced by staff.
Some leaders also fail to consider the training, time or equipment that people need to implement the changes. Most people want to do good work. But they feel quite unsupported when they are not given what they need to do their work well.
One leader I know failed to prepare for the likely challenges attached to redundancies he was putting into effect. The process for making decisions about redundancies was not transparent. He broke the news of redundancies very badly. There was no care or empathy. Other staff were left to pick up the pieces. Nor was there any clear information about entitlements.
Another leader in a similar situation developed a Redundancy Kit with information about how and when decisions will be made, details about entitlements, as well as support for those whose positions were affected.
- Lack of clear direction: Team members also feel frustrated when they have been given vague directives or mixed messages from their manager or leadership team.
Most people are open to cooperating, but need clear, consistent messages about the priorities, what needs to change first, who is going to do what by when, and which issues need to be given a lower priority.
Good planning documents, apart from including the rationale for change, any consultations that have taken place, and the proposed changes, also include a time table for key milestones – when, for example, consultation is to take place, decisions to be made, role descriptions to be revised, training to be delivered, and new systems to be put into place.
To give unclear direction, leaves team members feeling like they are drowning in a sea of change, uncertain as to which way to swim.
For some of us, we are on the receiving end of such mistakes being made by senior management, Central Office or government. When we see others making easily avoidable mistakes, we advocate for the actions we need to see, we make the best of the situation we have, or we take action ourselves to fill in the gaps.