Leading Change Starts With You
By Ron CarucciTuesday, January 30th 2018
Most leaders charged with initiating significant change focus almost exclusively on factors outside themselves – the talent they have to upgrade, the cost they have to take out, the performance they have to turn around. The underlying dangerous assumption is that they are already equipped to effect needed change. Unfortunately, when it comes to successful organizational change, failure continues to be more common than success. In a survey of nearly 3,000 executives concerning the success of their enterprise transformation efforts, McKinsey discovered the failure rate to be higher than 60%, while Harvard Business Review conducted a study that suggested more than 70% of transformation efforts fail.
Leaders who are wary of the ever-present risk of failure will often devote countless resources to planning out the perfect change management initiative. To raise the odds of success, however, my experience suggests the place leaders need to begin their transformation efforts is not within their organizations, but within themselves.
Few leaders would disagree that personal transformation is an important building block of any successful change effort. Unfortunately, too many leaders want transformation to happen everywhere but within themselves, at unrealistic speeds, and with minimal effort. As Manfred Kets de Vries says in his book, The Leader on the Couch, “Organizations the world over are full of people who are unable to recognize repetitive behavior patterns that have become dysfunctional.” This reflects an endemic lack of self-awareness in leadership, and the costs are significant. One study found that, when it comes to decision-making, coordination, and conflict management, teams that have a low degree of self-awareness are less than half as effective as teams that are highly self-aware.
During times of disruptive change, leaders are far more likely to be triggered. The loss of control, the interruption of power, and the fear of failure are heightened. In response, leaders, often unconsciously, respond reflexively with behaviors that reveal their struggle to adapt to the very change they are championing.
One newly appointed CEO I worked with was leading a massive overhaul of his company while he personally struggled deeply with indecisiveness. Historically, the organization’s culture had been slow and unresponsive because decision-making resided largely at the top. He redesigned the organization to create a culture where decision rights were more appropriately distributed to those lower in the organization who were better equipped to solve problems and direct resources. That left the most strategic decisions with him and his team. Yet he struggled to get to closure on critical decisions with his team, decisions the rest of the organization depended on to execute the subsequent decisions they were empowered to now make. The CEO was perpetuating the very paralysis he sought to alleviate.
When we dig into the deeper roots of a leader’s unproductive behavior, we look for what we call the “operative narrative,” the “tape” playing at an unconscious level driving unwanted behavior. Not surprisingly, beneath this very accomplished CEO’s behavior was a tape of perfectionism declaring, “If you’re wrong about this, it’s all on you.” His fear of being wrong and bearing disproportionate levels of accountability for failure prevented him from using his brilliant mind to weigh available options and data, include the perspectives of his capable leaders, and make the call.
For executives to succeed leading organizational transformations, they must begin with their personal transformation. And that starts with identifying and “re-scripting” those operative narratives that might provoke unproductive behavior. Here are two important first steps to begin that re-scripting work.
Know who and what pushes your buttons. One behavior that keeps us locked into this cycle is called “transference,” which happens when we transfer our personal fears and self-doubt onto someone else. In moments of transference, a leader’s behavior is shaped and motivated more by their past experience than what is happening in the present. They are “triggered.”
One client of ours realized early in the process of leading the turnaround of a flailing division that her impatience was making performance worse and weakening confidence in the future. We later discovered that her impatience was symptomatic of deeper issues. When people asked questions for clarification about the change, she interpreted them as resistance to her vision, or passive-aggressive doubt about her ability. Though they were neither, her angry responses created the very resistance and passive-aggression she feared. She needed to embrace people’s questions as an opportunity to further secure their commitment, not as personal attacks on her vision and leadership. A look back at her career path revealed a long history of unjustly having to prove herself, receiving unfair critique, and feeling second guessed by those whose approval she desperately wanted. Each question from her team triggered past transference compounded by the natural anxieties of leading high-risk change.
Breaking the cycle of triggers that transfer past experiences onto current situations begins in deep self-reflection. Be ruthlessly self-honest about who and what those trigger points are.
Identify the underlying scripts. Simply identifying situations or people most likely to trigger isn’t sufficient to realize change. Many leaders flippantly declare trigger points like, “Boy, he really pushes my buttons every time I’m with him,” or “I’m fine presenting to anyone in the company, but when it comes to her, I lose a week of sleep.” But they stop short of uncovering the narrative beneath those triggers leading to unwanted behavior. Lasting personal transformation demands facing the tapes playing in your head that lead you to exasperating confessions that sound like, “Why on earth do I keep doing that?” Naming that you do things you shouldn’t isn’t self-awareness. It’s simply acknowledging that you’ve been told a certain behavior is troubling to others and that you wish you didn’t do it. Genuine self-awareness demands you dig deeper to uncover the real answer to why you keep doing it and then actually work to stop doing it.
Writing them out on paper provides the sobering acceptance of a deeper force shaping behavior. This requires courage, humility, and the ability to detect patterns of behavior recurring in times of change. When a leader accepts their narrative in black and white that reveals the answer to, “Why do I keep doing that?” they have taken the powerful next step at re-scripting it.
Give people permission to name your triggers. To keep vigilant about your risks of being triggered, invite a small number of close colleagues into your personal change effort. Tell them to keep an eye out for potentially escalating situations in which they sense your reactions may be irrational, extreme, or rooted in one of your triggers. Ask them to cue you to “pause” and regroup, and regain perspective before proceeding to any decisions or actions, or worse, to help you avoid saying anything you might later regret. Knowing that you have helpful eyes on you acts both as a reinforcement mechanisms for your changed behavior, it also acts as a source of accountability to sustain commitment to change.
Your ability to affect change across the organization depends on your ability to affect change within yourself. Accepting this will fundamentally shift how you lead. Such introspection is an active process. Leaders should take notes, spot trends, course-correct. They should solicit feedback from others, tracking the impact their behavior has on others and how closely their actions match intentions. Leaders should start a transformational journey accepting that the organization will have to transform them as much as they will have to transform it for both to succeed. The more a leader knows how they will react during change, the better equipped they’ll be to foster real change in themselves, others, and the organization.Comments subject to review.