(Most) change leadership sucks


February 9th, 2015


change-fatigue-blogIf the stats from recent Towers Watson research are anything to go by, the state of change leadership, and therefore those who are entrusted with that responsibility, is far from healthy.

  • Almost half (44%) of UK workers suffering from “change fatigue” (good to see the latter in inverted commas as it is a symptom of the problem: the rhetoric of change and distancing effect it has)
  • Less than a third (30 percent) of employees saying that changes are well-implemented at their organisation.
  • One in four UK employees are currently disengaged, with an “excessive amount of change” cited as one of the top causes of work-related stress

The real kicker in the research is possibly this statement:

  • Only half (49 percent) of employees actually believe the information they receive from the senior leadership team

It’s about trust, trust and more trust

Ouch. So, in other words, senior leaders are not trusted to tell the truth. So what is the answer? Is there one? Quick, Steve, can I have a Roffey/management consulting/business school one-hit, one-stop shop, quick-fix, please? You must have a clever tool or model that can do it right? A nifty four-box model, a circle thingy or ‘Pyramid of Never Ending Trust Creation’? Sorry, no.

Part of the challenge emerges in the advice from Nick Tatchell of Towers Watson (my italics):

Our latest research shows that UK bosses are not as effective as they could be in driving strong performance from the workforce. Being a great leader means creating a culture in which employees can flourish by removing obstacles and providing inspiration. Having a significant segment of the working population worrying about too much change, without a clear steer from the top, qualifies as leadership failure.

In some respects I agree with Tom’s statement, and, note again the language. Workforces are there to be ‘driven’. Hang on, doesn’t your research already tell you people are tired? More driving is really the answer to that? The notion of ‘great’ leaders needs careful handling. In the week when we have been celebrating Winston Churchill, the notions of ‘great man’,’ heroic’ leadership tacitly become endorsed. The challenge in increasingly socially, digitally and technological complex organisations is to devolve authority and responsibility, to create cultures where staff are trusted and have autonomy to adapt and change by being part of a conversation with the senior leaders, not waiting for a delivery of inspiration from on high.

Lastly, I agree that having clarity from the top is useful and important. This ‘clear steer from the top’ sums up the challenge with conventional approaches to organisational change leadership.

  1. Clarity comes only from top
  2. The steer is from the top
  3. It is an occasional intervention. I’ll come to you when you are going off course because I don’t trust you to know what the ‘right course’ is, unless I tell you.

To be fair, Towers Watson go on to highlight the importance of CEO’s telling a story, of giving details and communicating openly, honestly and consistently. They also say they “also need to find opportunities to actively involve employees in plans by facilitating a two-way dialogue will also support engagement goals”. I’d tentatively suggest that it would be more useful to have an on-going dialogue, not just open up a conversation when you need some change to happen. The final recommendation is that leaders – above all – “need to come across as authentic in order to inspire the confidence and respect of the workforce”. I am unclear as to whether this is a suggestion leaders be authentic, or whether it is enough just to come across as authentic. The first requires more work, the second will in all likelihood be smelled a mile off by most employees and lead us straight back to the trust issues above.

So what?

So what to make of all of the above? The research tells us much of what we know (our own Management Agenda findings echo this: 75% of our survey said their organisations had attempted culture change in the last five years with a lack of change leadership in particular lack of vision, purpose and commitment as the reasons why culture change is unsuccessful).

Where I part company with Towers Watson is in the notion that leaders can have real impact in changing the ongoing relationship with employees simply by playing at authenticity.

Now what?

For what it is worth, my suggestions are that leaders:

  1. Need to have a genuine interest in embodying a different style of leadership
  2. Be willing to work with employees to support them to adapt rather than change
  3. Work with their employees to co-create cultures that are grounded in high trust and open support and challenge, regardless of whether you are the CEO or the office boy/girl.

Then we might end up with surveys that show that (most) change leadership does not suck.