October 2019 | Leadership
There is a lot of advice on avoiding the 6 — or 4, or 10 — most common missteps in leading a change initiative. But there’s one serious cause for failure that rarely makes these lists. It’s change fatigue. When everyone is sick and tired of hearing about the latest ideas from management about how to improve X, Y, or Z, how do you lead change?
Greg Shea, adjunct professor of Management and senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, says leaders have to start with credibility. “When you’ve got a workforce that is tired and disillusioned, who feel like other changes haven’t worked, you have to demonstrate that this time will be different.”
The academic director of Leading Organizational Change says if change fatigue is the result of past failures, start by figuring out what went wrong. “Were those change initiatives add-ons, relegated to the corner of the leader’s desk, never front and center? Have budgets been shoestring? Is the sticking point always IT? There are any number of things you could discover.”
“That means understanding that time doesn’t actually begin with you,” says Shea. “Especially if you have been brought in from outside the organization, it’s insulting to act as if those past failures either didn’t happen or don’t matter. Figure out what people have been through, and make it known that you understand.”
Often, one of those sticking points is a lack of support. Shea says, “Just like quality isn’t the sole responsibility of a ‘quality person,’ change can’t all be on one person’s shoulders. It doesn’t work. You can create the tip of the spear but if others are not invested, if the change initiative is just your problem, it’s not going to work. You can come in to help lead change. But if the organization is struggling, it needs to be responsible with you for making the change.”
That is particularly important if you are being brought in from outside the organization. Before you say yes to the job, says Shea, “Ask why you should believe you will succeed when others have failed. What resources are available that weren’t before? Who supports the change and who is going to help me? Coming from outside it is particularly important to have those conversations.”
Once you have a clear picture of the reasons for past failures, figure out a way around them, and then communicate it clearly. Demonstrating how this time will be different means articulating a credible plan for addressing previous problems — whether due to human or financial resources, technology, or lack of support — from the beginning of the process.
You also need to communicate tangible reasons for the change. People are more motivated to participate when they understand why the initiative is important. If you can clearly demonstrate the need, and how everyone’s input is important, you are more likely to get cooperation.
Once the initiative is underway, Shea says progress must be obvious. “It’s hard to have a high energy level when you believe you are losing. The more people have experienced failures, the more they need short-term successes. Make sure there are clear benchmarks that help them recognize that they are winning, and celebrate them. Leading through change fatigue requires building energy and confidence.” And, Shea would agree, plenty of advanced preparation.
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