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Leadership in Change Management

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Communication and Conflict

What is the role of leadership in change management?

Joe and Jane both led divisions of roughly equal size and responsibility in a large company. The company had recently directed several unpopular changes that were disruptive to both divisions. Joe was having a lot of trouble getting his team to implement the changes. Team members were openly rebellious and some were filing complaints and grievances.

Jane’s division was also unhappy with the changes but was not openly rebellious. Although they were not in favor of the changes, her team worked to implement them as best they could.

Why the stark difference between Joe’s and Jane’s divisions? Let’s turn back the clock.

Joe is the type of leader who knows he’s in charge and if you work for him, you better know that too. He prides himself on listening to his team, but in reality he’s only hearing them agree with him. He doesn’t bother to ask anyone else their thoughts before he makes decisions; after all, he’s the leader. He’s found it convenient to tell the workers whatever he thought would keep them quiet, even if it means stretching the truth.

Jane’s leadership style is quite different. She regularly gets out of her office and talks to her workers making an obvious, and genuine effort to understand their concerns. She keeps them informed as much as she can and tells them when she isn’t able to answer their questions.

When the changes were announced at a staff meeting both Joe and Jane knew they would not be popular. Jane asked the plant manager, Greg, if she could speak with him for a few minutes after the meeting. Joe just rolled his eyes and said, “There she goes again. Why can’t you just do what you’re told?” Jane ignored him and privately expressed some concerns to Greg who quickly understood she had some valid points. Greg took her concerns to the company’s president who also understood and made some modifications.

While Jane was speaking with Greg, Joe went back to his team and told them about the changes, simply instructing them to make it happen. After Jane’s meeting with Greg she gathered her team and explained the changes that had been directed. She told the team that she knew they would not be happy about the changes and mentioned that she had made some suggestions to the plant manager that she hoped would ease the team’s implementation of the changes. Regardless, Jane was clear that the team would do their best to implement the changes. She asked them to help her find something positive in the experience.

Jane’s division saw that she had represented their concerns and, while they weren’t happy with the changes, they knew she would need their support if she was to continue representing them as she had.

Of course word spread about Jane’s discussion with Greg and she was informally credited with making the directed changes a little more acceptable. Joe’s division was upset that Joe had not supported her, and them, so they didn’t see any reason to support him. They rebelled and many even refused to implement the changes.
What is the role of leadership in change management?

Change isn’t always popular and it’s sometimes difficult to implement. Of course, a leader’s role in change management is to make it happen. But how they do that separates good leaders from average leaders. In Jane’s example,

  • She knew enough about her team to understand the biggest issues her team would have and that the change would be a hard sell.
  • She expressed her concerns to her boss, privately so as not to challenge him publically.
  • She carefully explained the directed change to her team and explained the concerns she expressed to the boss; not to make him look bad but to ensure the team knew she was working for them.
  • She asked the team to help her implement the change and find something positive in the experience.

All of these steps helped her gain and maintain trust with her team. When workers trust their leaders to represent them, even fight for them, change is much easier.

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