Change affects all organizations. It’s inevitable, and it can occur internally or as a result of market or industry change. Leading change effectively is not only necessary for survival, but it’s also a requirement for building and maintaining a competitive advantage. Towers Watson research found that companies with strong change management practices are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers. Organizations that successfully navigate change are able to overcome obstacles and continue to grow as they transform existing processes and introduce new tools.
The key to any successful change management initiative is having effective leaders who not only embrace change, but also effectively lead others through change. Organizational change isn’t always predictable and can occur at any time. As a result, leaders must be flexible and ready to recognize the need for change. They also need to take actions that help the entire organization support change on an ongoing basis. Here are eight important principles for leading organizational change.
1. A clear vision
For any company endeavor, there must be a well-defined plan. Successful organizational change requires a vision that details the reason for change, how it will impact employees, and what the end result will be. People need to have a clear line of sight that helps them see how things will change and how the company will be better once the change is implemented effectively. Without that clarity, it’s hard for people to see how and why they should support change. Instead of simply telling employees that change is coming, leaders can effectively communicate a clear vision for change by repeating the vision in numerous forums, including in meetings, one-on-one discussions, and emails. A strong vision inspires people to action. As people become more comfortable with the vision for change, they will have time to embrace it and support it by changing their behavior.
2. Involvement of the entire organization
Although it’s necessary for organizational leaders to establish and communicate the vision for change, leaders also need to ensure that the change initiative involves all levels of the organization. Successful change management must start at the top, but it can’t stay there. When the entire workforce is involved, there is less chance of certain groups or functions assuming they are immune to change or that they don’t need to participate. In addition, when everyone is included in organizational change efforts, there’s a greater likelihood that a culture that embraces change will result.
Functional and frontline leaders are uniquely positioned to ensure the involvement of the whole workforce. They touch all levels of employees and can help ensure that key messages about change are consistently delivered throughout the company. In fact, one study found that one of the most important factors of successful organizational change efforts was the effectiveness of mid-level managers. With the consistent support of all leaders, key messages are reinforced rather than diluted or lost.
3. Change agents
Organizational leaders can further drive the effectiveness of company change efforts by enlisting change agents who can also support and champion change. These informal leaders support change and lead by example, showing others how to approach change and how to develop a mindset that is less resistant to change. Change agents can lead a task force, explain a new process to a group of employees, or organize a Q&A session to help employees navigate change. When people see change agents and peers participating in change efforts, they may be more likely to join in.
4. Effective communication
Effective communication not only helps people understand change and how it will impact them, but also keeps change efforts on track. When the communication is two-way, individuals also have opportunities to share feedback and ask questions. According to a Robert Half survey, 65 percent of managers said that clear and frequent communication was the most important aspect of leading through times of change. Opportunities for effective communication exist before, during, and after a change initiative. For example:
- Before change - Clear communication about the change that’s coming helps employees prepare and adjust.
- During change - Frequent communication about progress and milestones helps individuals see what’s been accomplished and gain clarity on next steps.
- After a change initiative has concluded - Regular communication reinforces new behaviors and processes and helps to ensure people don’t fall into the “old way” of doing things.
5. Learning and development
Most people don’t show up to work knowing how to handle change; they need to be taught. Considering that organizational change happens so frequently and that there are many effective strategies for managing it, leaders can benefit from coaching and change management training that helps them master the art of leading change. When leaders have the skills they need to guide employees through change, they will lead with greater impact and drive change at the individual level. Targeted leadership development can help individuals build competency in the following areas:
- Setting expectations to help individuals understand desired outcomes
- Effectively delivering messages about change that drive individual behavior
- Giving feedback that inspires and motivates employees to embrace change
6. Employee support
Change can be a daunting and frustrating experience, but those frustrations can be allayed by leaders who provide the motivation and support that shows employees they’re not alone. Support for employees can come in many forms. Leaders can have one-on-one conversations with employees during which they show empathy and provide suggestions for how to navigate change. They can also provide individuals with tools that will help them adapt to a new process or workflow. Other examples of employee support mechanisms include:
- Feedback sessions that give individuals opportunities to raise concerns and ask questions about the changes they’re experiencing.
- Experiential learning exercises that provide a safe environment for learning and practicing new skills in areas such as teamwork, communication, or time management.
- Team building and off-site sessions that help individuals bond over shared experiences and benefit from each other’s advice.
7. Accountability in teams
Successful organizational change can only happen if everyone takes accountability for doing their part. Leaders need to be accountable for communicating clear expectations, providing feedback, and supporting their team through a change initiative. They also need to ensure that everyone on the team is accountable for the outcome of the change initiative, instead of viewing it as a management-only exercise. One way leaders can build accountability within teams is with MCR (Model, Coach, Require) coaching. In this three-step process, leaders model the behavior they expect of employees, coach individuals for improved performance, and then require the necessary change in behavior by setting clear expectations and consequences. When everyone does their part and takes ownership of organizational change, teams function more efficiently and sustainable change becomes more likely.
8. Reinforcement and measurement
Organizational change doesn’t stop just because a specific change initiative has come to its conclusion. Leading organizational change requires reinforcement of new employee behaviors and skills, as well as measurement of your progress on an ongoing basis. Regular reinforcement of newly learned behaviors supports better retention of training content. Additionally, measuring progress helps everyone see how far you’ve come and inspires them to stay the course. Examples of reinforcement and measurement activities that keep the momentum going for organizational change efforts include:
- Celebrating wins and other successes.
- Following up with employees in person and via email to reiterate the company’s commitment to change.
- Reinforcing new skills employees have learned through assessments and learning exercises.
- Measuring the results of change initiatives through surveys and performance metrics.
Leading organizational change requires a deliberate focus on developing leaders who can lead others through the waters of change. Leaders need to possess the ability to explain to employees why change is necessary, how change will impact them, and what each person must do to make the change initiative a success. When leaders have the tools to communicate, coach, and support employees through change, the chances of success are greater.