Leaders and Change: Imperatives in the ‘New Normal’

Positioning the ‘Conversation’

The pandemic experience, while incredibly challenging for leaders and teams, also provided important learnings. We came to recognize the greater impact and influence of such attributes as resilience, agility, humility, curiosity, self-care, compassion and caring, and attention to growing self-awareness, as central to the leader role in guiding teams and ensuring that organization priorities are realized. These are foundational and increasingly expected of the most effective leaders.

Courage, however, stands out as it is a pre-requisite, a ‘non-negotiable’ way of behaving. If our learnings from the pandemic are to be applied in a way which has both positive impact and also yields essential results, then courage and courageous action has to be ‘front-and-centre’. I like Mark Kingwell’s phrase and I think it is quite apt as we think about courage. Through the experience of the pandemic, we see that the place of courage in the leader’s role as being “not so much new as more vivid”.[1]

The Ongoing Challenge of Leading Change

As I thought about the changing role of leaders, I was in the process of reading Professor James Conklin’s recent book on change entitled Balancing Acts: A Human Systems Approach to Organizational Change.[2] With his thoughtful model of change before me and my decision to use the courage ‘lens’ as my guide in writing this article, I set out to explore the leader’s role in navigating the uncertainties of the ‘new normal’ of organization life. That led to the generation of a number of ‘courageous questions’ which internal leaders might use in challenging organizations to marshal energy appropriately in making desired changes.

One important note, however, is that Conklin’s model is focused on external interveners, including consultants and related outside advisors. That said – and based on a short conversation with Professor Conklin – I believe that his model can be used effectively by leaders within organizations. The primary caution is that the leader and his/her organization must pay particular attention to areas in which an absence of complete objectivity can potentially detract from the full effectiveness of the change initiative.

(To address this obvious reality, I offer some ideas at the close of this article to mitigate, to the extent possible, the ‘downside’ associated with having an internal leader guiding the change).

Applying the Conklin Framework

As noted above, there is no doubt that it is often a daunting challenge to bring tough, sensitive and courageous questions to colleagues and more senior leaders when you are part of the organization; this is never more obvious than when the questions touch on sensitive ways of behaving. As tough as that might be, however, this is very much part of the role leaders are expected to take on in this new reality.

In essence, Conklin’s approach looks at the patterns of thought and behaviour in organizations and how they interact with structure or are influenced by it. Those elements summarize what constitutes a ‘human system’.[3]

The notion of paradox, or ‘seeming paradox’ is intriguing and part of understanding and applying Conklin’s change model. His framework speaks to four aspects of balancing in the process of leading change:

  1. An initial phase of ‘Confrontation and Compassion’, in which there is a tension between balance and push, and creation of safety;
  2. A ‘Planned and Emergent’ phase, where the balance is between staying the course and changing the course;
  3. A ‘Participate and Observe’ phase, in which the leader or intervener is in my words ‘in the system’ but not ‘of the system’; and
  4. A Fourth phase, referred to as ‘Assert and Inquire’, where the leader is not there to provide answers but rather to work with the organization to generate or discover answers and approaches.

In each case, the model also assumes that reflection, review, and two-way conversations inform any actions or change in direction.

The Approach

With that in mind I offer a set of questions which I believe might be helpful to teams, their leaders and the wider organization, even when they are accompanied by a necessary tension. For each, courage will be necessary to both pose the question and then work through it and any consequent discomfort. Intention is always to focus on developing clarity and generating options for action. For many, while this will be ‘new territory’ it has the potential to very rich ‘learning territory’! There will be days when the comment that ‘…now we know what doesn’t work so well’ becomes the beginning of wisdom.

Courageous Questions to Help Leaders Connect, Integrate and Coach at Each Phase of a Change Process

The implicit assumption around the most important change efforts is that the current situation is unwanted, unsustainable and/or unhelpful in the context of current and perhaps future organization priorities.

Guided by Conklin’s language let’s look at each phase and propose a few questions which will balance two essential elements: the need for respect at all times – for ideas, resistance and challenge – with the equally-important need to be clear and toughminded in order to help the organization move forward:

1.   The Confrontation & Compassion Phase:

  • Why is this change effort an imperative for you?
  • What are your underlying assumptions, beliefs and values which you bring to the initiative? Let’s talk about any biases, conscious or otherwise, which might impact the work, both yours and mine as you perceive them.
  • What is at risk for you personally in engaging actively in the change? What risks will you be willing to assume, and which will you not? What are the risks for me in taking on this role?
  • What needs to happen to make this challenge as ‘safe as possible’ for you and your colleagues (e.g. team, organization unit)? What do I need to do to help ensure that there is that level of safety? What should I not do?
  • What concrete actions will you look for that build trust in my leadership or facilitation of the change effort? Again, what will work against or erode that necessary trust?
  • To what degree do I have freedom in asking the difficult (but what I believe to be necessary) questions? What might be off limits?

2.  The Planned and Emergent Phase:

  • When we have the data, understand it, and identify major themes, are you willing to commit to an action plan which I draft, we discuss, revise, and finalize? Where will you anticipate the team being less open, less certain, or less comfortable? Where do you think I will need to be especially aware of concerns in the team or areas of potential disagreement and resistance arising?
  • Some of what I find will probably require that you and others will have ‘to suspend disbelief’ in order to understand countervailing opinions or perspectives clearly at odds with your understanding and view of the reality. What might I expect by way of behaviours in those instances? Will you be willing to declare them in order for us to see new options for moving forward positively?
  • What will you need from me if I see a need to ‘change course’ based on new information or emerging themes?
  • What are the key elements in creating and maintaining confidence in our ongoing communications?

3.  The Participate and Observe Phase:

  • In order to lead this change effort, I will need to be intimately involved with you and your colleagues in this change effort. We know each other well and we are part of the same organization. That said, my role is to participate fully but also maintain a distance to avoid colluding or losing any sense of objectivity. That is no small task, so what is going to be the key challenge for you and the change team? For me as a leader?
  • A key challenge is one that an external consultant would not face. In a sense, while I am ‘of the system’, for this work I need to behave as if I am only ‘in the system’ – a ‘visitor’ in a sense – but as much as possible without having our work derailed or overly-influenced by my obvious vested interest in the change outcome. While it may be ‘raggedy’ and imperfect, what do I need to do to achieve that balance to the extent possible? What can I count on you and your team to do to help with that ‘boundary’ issue?
  • On occasion, I will need you to push back, if you think I am mixing the ‘participate’ role with the ‘observe’ role. Will you be willing to do that in the interests of the critical need for integrity in our change process?

4.  The Assert and Inquire Phase:

  • If I am going to be truly helpful to the team in making the change, I will have to balance making statements with asking questions; the former must take second place to the latter if I am to lead effectively. Where do you think I will have the most difficulty in achieving that balance? How can you help me with that challenge(s)?
  • There may be occasions when you look to me for an answer and I will resist or choose not to provide one. (I may have ideas or even think I have the answer, but it will be my answer and not one that you have thought about and committed to). How will we have that important conversation?
  • My job is to enable the best answers. This may take time, be frustrating and obviously position me in a coach role, not ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘boss’. Where do you think you’ll need support in staying with that distinction in role and what will you look to me for as a coach-leader? Where do you think you will you be most stretched or challenged with learning new approaches (and perhaps letting older ones go)?
  • Where do you think that you might be in the best position to ‘coach’ me? Based on what you know of me, where do you think coaching will most benefit the change initiative and my growth? Can I count on you to be ‘straight’ with me when you think I need that clarity or feedback?

The Role of an Internal Change Leader: An Owner’s Manual

This article is and was a ‘work-in-progress’, in that it attempts to work with a model not originally designed for use by internal leaders of organizations. But more importantly, we have no complete certainty as to what the ‘new normal’ will ask of us as leaders in our organizations. That said, given the need to lead change and inspire others to join in the effort, leaders have no choice but to engage, consult, learn, act and coach.

While Professor Conklin’s ‘architecture’ is obviously a very strong model for making change, we must also recognize that by virtue of being part of the organization, there are limitations and challenges to how the leader goes about being the courageous change agent. In an exchange with Professor Conklin on this very point, he points out that the internal leader’s use of the model is “difficult, but not impossible”.

In order to take account of that caution and mitigate any unwanted impact when the change leader is an intrinsic part of the system, I suggest the following actions as potentially useful:

  • The choice of a leader for the change initiative is crucial. Demonstrated effectiveness, thoughtful listening skills, concern for the wellbeing of colleagues and a reputation for ‘honest dealing’ in achieving results can position the leader most effectively to lead the work;
  • A pre-requisite for launching the initiative includes positioning the work as a learning opportunity first and foremost. Convening a conversation which includes the designated leader and key stakeholders to talk about ‘learning’ and ‘un-learning’ and to define the nature of the risks which might arise, the likelihood of their occurrence and the potential impact on the initiative is a key step;
  • A supportive and skilled HR business partner can be a great assist to the leader in both understanding process, broader organization culture and dynamics while potentially serving as a coach to the leader;
  • Active involvement of executive and other senior leadership sends a strong signal of support and commitment both to the initiative and to the leader charged with being at its head; active support is what the organization will both see and therefore believe;
  • A commitment to ‘reflect and refine’ throughout is a further opportunity to ensure that unwanted outcomes or ‘stumbles’ do not detract from or compromise the impact of the change work in a lasting way; and
  • Finally, the extent to which the leader is self-aware in respect of such factors as his or her ‘blind spots’, any ‘unconscious bias’ and remains open to clear feedback throughout will contribute directly to the potential for a successful change process and a strengthening of the leader’s role and the trust others have in him or her.

On this last point – and incorporating an email exchange with Professor Conklin – the leader’s task is to ensure that he or she is deliberate in identifying any “hidden commitments” which might impact their attempts at balance and objectivity. As Professor Conklin reminded me, the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey developed in their enduring and thoughtful work entitled ‘Immunity to Change’ remains a very relevant reference for the self-aware leader.[4]

Concluding Thoughts

A clear implication and one which runs across each of the phases outlined above, is that ‘straight-talk’ and courage will be foundational in the leader’s role. In addition, there is an implicit assumption that leadership is going to be informed by and at times shared with stakeholders. The process requires time to ensure that common understanding and commitment are present throughout and that focused time for reflection on actions taken, results and adjustments to plan is built into the change initiative.

The leader remains in what some have described as the ‘conductor’ role. But what is new…or ‘more vivid’ as Kingwell writes… is that he or she becomes the primary and increasingly courageous voice in connecting relevant ideas with necessary actions, integrating these with larger organization priorities and coaching the behaviours in colleagues charged with executing and operationalizing the plans – a skilled ‘conductor’ certainly but also a ‘respectful provocateur’!

 

About the Author

Ross Roxburgh

 

 

 

 

Ross Roxburgh is a leadership coach and organization consultant with several decades of experience with a wide range of clients, both domestic and international across the private, public and para-public sectors. He has a strong interest in the effectiveness of individuals and teams in complex organization environments; in many cases he brings both coaching and consulting experience to client engagements. Ross holds the designation of Certified Management Consultant (CMC) as well as that of Master Corporate Executive Coach (MCEC). He has been certified in the use of the EQ-I 2.0 instrument as well as the LEA 360. He is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC on a range of programs related to Board effectiveness, Committee evolution and Performance Management. He has written a number of articles for Queen’s IRC on the topics of coaching and leadership.

 

References

Conklin, J. (2021). Balancing acts: A human systems approach to organizational change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

Kingwell, M. (2020). On Risk. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis.

Recommended Reading

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in others which the author has written for Queen’s IRC:

Footnotes

[1] Kingwell, M. (2020). On Risk. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis

[2] Conklin, J. (2021). Balancing acts: A human systems approach to organizational change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

Bridging the Gap: Successful Change Management in a Project Environment

Project management (PM) and organizational change management (OCM) serve as a bridge between where an organization is today, and where it wants to be in the future. Increasingly, there is recognition of the critical role that OCM plays in a project environment. Human factors affecting the successful implementation of a project include:

  • Speed of adoption: How quickly people take in the changes resulting from the project.
  • Utilization: How many of those affected are doing their jobs correctly as a result of the changes.
  • Proficiency: How many of those affected by the project are performing at the desired levels after the project has wrapped up.

Despite the importance of addressing the human factors that affect the success of a project, Change Managers (CM’s) with limited experience working in project environments can feel overwhelmed, sidelined, or under-valued. Project Managers (PM’s) who are focused on the project deliverables and technical details of implementation may not truly understand or value the contributions that CM’s can make to project success. While successful project implementation depends on an effective working relationship between CM’s and PM’s, this isn’t always the case. So the question is: How do we bridge the gap between these two separate, but inter-connected and overlapping areas of practice?

Drawing on our experience and findings in the research literature, we offer some practical suggestions to help increase the likelihood of successful implementation. Using a case study to illustrate and explore the issues, we hope to provide some guidance to help both PM and CM professionals identify and institute effective organizational change management practices in a project environment.

Download PDF: Bridging the Gap: Successful Change Management in a Project Environment

Are You in a Communication Rut? Shift the Pattern, Get Different Results

Imagine that you are in a conversation when you suddenly realize that you have had this exact same disagreement with a co-worker, or a family member, many times before. In the moment, you can predict what you will say and do and what the other person will too. You feel compelled to act in a certain way, even when you know that what you will say or do next is unwise or unproductive. You cannot seem to help yourself. Or the other person! After the conversation has gone from bad to worse, you may find yourself attributing it to the other person’s incompetence, character flaws, or bad motive. You end up feeling frustrated and angry about how you and the other person did it again. Furthermore, you may be oblivious to how your behavior contributed to the undesirable behavior of the other person. You’ve just had an URP moment.

It can feel embarrassing to admit that despite our best intentions, our communications with others do not go the way we intended and that we could make better choices in the moment. Leaders and managers can learn to address some of these unwanted, repetitive, and intractable dynamics and shift the pattern to what they want instead.

Download PDF: Are You in a Communication Rut? Shift the Pattern, Get Different Results

Ghost Sponsors: Is the Sponsor for Your Change Project Missing in Action?

George was sitting quietly at the back of the room when he suddenly came to life. “But you don’t understand. All this talk about getting ‘sponsors’ on board is all well and good, but what do you do when your sponsor is basically invisible?” A roomful of participants nodded in agreement as George continued. “We can’t get sponsors to show up at meetings, they won’t make decisions that affect the project, they don’t allocate the resources we need. They might as well be ghosts!”

Active and visible support from senior-level sponsors is well-documented in the business literature on change as one of the most important contributors to successful change implementation. Key leaders need to communicate their support of planned organizational change. Clarity of vision, and consistency in word and action are powerful levers that sponsors can use to convince people of the need and urgency for change and to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Yet the experience of many mid-level managers attests to the reality that it can be difficult to engage sponsors and maintain their commitment over the life-cycle of a change initiative.

What can you do when you are challenged by ‘ghost sponsors’ who may be mute, or those who fade in and out of your change project?

Selecting a Sponsor

As change champions, we don’t often get to choose our change sponsors. Sponsors are typically selected based on their position, power and status in the organizational hierarchy, and these are important criteria when it comes to being able to advocate or provide needed resources. Daryl Connor suggests that beyond organizational position we consider a more personal set of characteristics, including the ability of the sponsor to develop effective relationships with the change champion and other members of the change team. Connor suggests that at the selection stage we assess several factors. What is the commitment level of the sponsor? Commitment must be deep, personal, and unequivocal. Sponsors should be selected who have a profound appreciation that people implement change. These sponsors understand that investing in the people side of change builds the organization’s capability to be successful with change now, and into the future. Sponsors who have some change related ‘scar tissue’ will bring their experience with past changes to the current change initiative. Select sponsors who believe that resistance is inevitable and healthy, and who understand that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities. Shifting our thinking to consider that the selection process for sponsors should be conducted as carefully and thoughtfully as selecting the next CEO signals to sponsor candidates, and to the rest of the organization, that change is indeed serious business.

Coaching a Sponsor

Effective sponsors are open to being coached. These are the people who lead with humility, who recognize what they don’t know, and who reach out to others in the organization who can help them be more effective in their roles as sponsors. For those of us serving as change champions, we need to be ready, willing, and able to coach and support sponsors: Do you have the skill, the experience, and the credibility to make it easy for sponsors to be receptive to your wise counsel and coaching about how best to move the change initiative forward?

Ed Schein suggests that leaders need to recognize that their personal success, and organizational success, depends on the contribution of their teams and  subordinates, and they should have the humility to acknowledge their own vulnerability and dependence on others. Leaders need to be able to ask their teams, “Am I doing this correctly?” and “Tell me if I am doing something wrong.” They need to be able to “abandon themselves to the strengths of others” as Max De Pree described it, recognizing that much can be accomplished by utilizing the diverse talents of their teams.

But it’s not always easy to tell sponsors how they might be getting in the way, or not stepping up to the plate. It can be very difficult for others in the organization to override an ingrained sense of deference to authority, and provide sponsors with troubling information about organizational resistance or other issues that may require a course-correction before greater problems emerge.

Sponsors have a responsibility to make it safe for others to provide this critical information, and change champions have a responsibility to learn how to communicate difficult information upwards in ways that they can be heard. Change champions need to be at the top of their game, prepared to coach sponsors, and credible in terms of their knowledge, skill, expertise and experience so that sponsors have a trusted advisor (Ulrich et al., 2012). Forging a solid relationship with sponsors is critical for change champions to be able to provide and receive frank feedback that will ensure the change sponsor is engaged, and keeping the project on track.

Sponsors Must Model the Way

While senior leaders and sponsors may have many skills that enable them to manage people, balance the budget, and generally lead effectively, it may be difficult for them to admit that they have no background or training in leading change. I can recall one conversation with a senior leader who told me that since he had been managing change his entire career, he had no need of any change management training. This individual not only refused to attend a training session planned for mid-level managers, but refused to introduce the facilitator who would be delivering the course, because he was too busy with other things. This sponsor failed to recognize the power of shared experience and common frameworks that contributes to change success. Imagine if this sponsor had at least participated in some of the change conversations, and listened sincerely and respectively to some of the challenges faced by his managers in implementing change.

In contrast to this experience, I have also witnessed the CEO of a large corporation who deliberately made time (and more than five minutes!) to come into a training session to talk about the importance of building the capacity of the entire company to better manage change. This was leadership…and sponsorship…in action! This leader shared a personal story about his own experiences learning about change, and how some of his assumptions had been challenged along the way. This leader/sponsor really walked the talk! The effect on the motivation and morale of those managers attending the program was both immediate and long lasting. Effective sponsors recognize and seize every opportunity to demonstrate in word and action that they are committed to helping their people lead change successfully.

Dealing with Sponsor Turnover

In some organizations, sponsor turnover is a very real risk to the success of a change project. Capable leaders may be on a fast-track for promotion, and may be re-assigned to another division or portfolio that removes them from the sponsorship role on your change project. This phenomenon occurs in both the private sector and the public sector. How can we as change champions be proactive in anticipating and dealing with this possibility?

Change guru John Kotter advocates for a guiding coalition to steer the change initiative. Ideally, a guiding coalition consists of the people with the position power to influence and guide the change initiative, create and communicate the urgency for change, and the ability to dedicate the necessary resources to support change implementation. In addition, members of the guiding coalition must possess the personal power that enables them to build trusting relationships with others across the organization. They must draw on their own personal integrity, and the credibility that derives from having expertise, experience, and a reputation for engaging others, and achieving results.  If sponsor turnover is a real and present danger in your organization, consider the option of involving someone who could act as an alternate sponsor if the lead sponsor is promoted or redeployed. This strategy might provide your steering committee or guiding coalition with continuity when key roles and responsibilities change suddenly.

The Sponsor Does Not Understand ‘Who’s on First?’

Lack of clarity about fundamental roles and responsibilities contributes to confusion, communication errors, and inefficiency. Sponsors who are unclear about the various roles and responsibilities that are critical to success are caught in a position of being unable to appropriately steer the course of the change project and ensure appropriate accountability for the completion of tasks. Just like sports teams, this fundamental premise of ‘play your position’ is key to success.

A project charter is a very effective tool to clarify roles and responsibilities, deliverables, performance metrics, and timelines. It also ensures accountability around the project. To ensure accountability, sponsors must understand, and help other key players all understand, what roles they play in the change project. However, when sponsors are not involved in developing the project charter, but simply presented with the final product by the project manager, they may feel disconnected from the project.

One strategy to ensure focused involvement of the sponsor is to extend an invitation to participate in the meeting to develop the change project charter. This task could be accomplished within a very specific and short timeframe, and allows all of the intended project players to participate in the conversation about roles, responsibilities, outcomes and timelines, key deliverables and accountabilities.

Involving the sponsor in setting the change project charter meeting affords an opportunity for honest and open, person-to-person communication about key requirements that are critical to the success of the change project, including an exploration of what the sponsor thinks is important, and what the change team needs from the sponsor. Sponsors with a better understanding of their role are more likely to be active and visible in their support for the project. Effective sponsors communicate the specific changes that are required.  Appropriate delegation of responsibilities by sponsors means communicating clear expectations. They provide a clear line of sight that enables individuals to connect their specific tasks and responsibilities with the overall goals of the change project. Sponsors who delegate appropriately provide this clarity, and ensure that others on the team have the authority, the power and the resources to get the job done. Sponsors who abdicate this critical responsibility quickly fade from view and become obstacles to realizing the benefits of change.

Conclusion

Out of frustration, we might be tempted to blame senior leaders for their lack of effective sponsorship. If we can avoid the ‘blame game, and stand in a place of curiosity, interest, and concern instead, we may be able to diagnose and understand the problem, and arrive at creative solutions to keep our change projects on track. Sponsors are only human. Just like employees, they too may need time to move through the change curve, and process their own emotional reactions to the intended change and the practical implications for the business functions for which they are responsible, as well as the broader organization-wide implications.

Nonetheless, Ghost Sponsors can have a deleterious effect on change implementation, wasting time, money and precious organizational resources.  Poor sponsorship can increase employee resistance to change, have a negative impact on morale, and make it difficult for the change team to accomplish desired results. Rather than time spent with the Ouija board trying to communicate with elusive ghost sponsors who inhabit the spirit world, I hope your future involves interaction with leaders who value authentic engagement with their teams, sponsors who can abandon themselves to the strengths of others, and in doing so, can make change happen.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, PhD is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management Program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education. As a scholar-practitioner she is interested in bringing theory into practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication.  She has delivered change management training to hundreds of people across Canada, and internationally.

 

References

Conner, D. R. (2012, March 13). Assessing leaders for change roles.  Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/assessing-leaders-for-change-roles.

Connor, D. R. (2006). Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper When Others Fail. New York, NY: Random House.

De Pree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. March-April, 59-67.

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W., Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

 

A Futurist’s Look at IR/HR – Why it’s Time to Start Over

The 2015 Don Wood Lecture was delivered by Peter Edwards, Vice-President Human Resources and Labour Relations at Canadian Pacific. In the lecture, Peter spoke about the future of work, including the changes that are taking place in organizations as new technology emerges, how these changes affect workers (particularly unionized workers) and how the HR and labour relations processes, like collective bargaining, need to evolve.

Topics include:

  • How technology (notably cellphones/smartphones) have changed the way we live, and will continue to change the way we live (ie: self-driving cars).
  • How automation in certain industries will replace human workers (including in the railroad industry) and the far-reaching impact this will have.
  • The need to change the collective bargaining process and new techniques for negotiating collective agreements, including the author’s personal experience.
  • Change management and the need for organizations to continue to change and evolve to stay alive in the future.

The Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations was established by friends of W. Donald Wood to honour his outstanding contribution to Canadian industrial relations. Dr. Wood was Director of the Industrial Relations Centre from 1960 to 1985, and the first Director of the School of Industrial Relations, established in 1983. The lecture brings to Queen’s University distinguished individuals who have made an important contribution to industrial relations in Canada or other countries. Peter is the first Don Wood lecturer to be a graduate of the MIR program that Dr. Wood established. Fall 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of Peter’s graduation from this program.

Download PDF: A Futurist’s Look at IR/HR – Why it’s Time to Start Over

FREE E-BOOK: The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change

The tough work of change management is the critical piece in successful change projects. This tough work is often neglected by change leaders and change agents, who place too much emphasis on high-level change planning and not enough emphasis on implementation.

Based on more than twenty years of Dr. Carol A. Beatty’s research, The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change walks you through the change management process, from start to finish.

This free e-book takes the complex concepts of change management and makes them as simple as possible, offering frameworks, guidelines, checklists and key questions to ensure that all of the important issues in a change initiative are not neglected. Case studies and examples enable the reader to work through these concepts and apply them to their own change initiatives.

Dr. Beatty draws conclusions about the key success factors of planned change, based on her change management research in hundreds of organizations and relevant literature.

In this e-book, you will learn:

  1. How to choose the right people with the right skills to plan and implement a successful change project, including a change champion, a steering committee, an executive sponsor and implementation teams.
  2. How to create a sense of urgency for the change throughout the organization.
  3. The steps to create an inspiring change vision that will truly motivate people to buy into the change.
  4. How to create a complete roadmap for implementing your change successfully, using a framework and key questions.
  5. Ways to deal with resistance to change, convert resisters and create support for the change.
  6. The essential role of communication during change, including a communications model and advice to help you develop your own communication plan.
  7. How to find a change leader with the skills and attributes of a true change champion.

Download the Free E-Book

Participation or Pseudo-Participation? Change Agent Challenges in Implementing Organizational Change

Creating energy, engagement, and commitment to change initiatives is one of many challenges we face as change agents. Increasingly, organizations, managers, and change practitioners espouse a belief that involving people in the change initiative is important. Many of us would agree in principle with this philosophy: Participation is essential to successful change implementation. However, the practical dimension of how to actually accomplish employee participation in change initiatives poses a challenge to change implementers.

There are many benefits of participatory processes. Participation may help minimize resistance to change initiatives. It affords employees the perception of a greater sense of control during a change process. Control is an important factor in helping to address the feelings of vulnerability and other emotional reactions that employees may experience during change. When employees are honestly engaged in opportunities to contribute their ideas, suggestions, and creative solutions to real and anticipated problems, to express concerns and alternatives, the entire organization can benefit as people learn how to solve problems. However, despite embracing a philosophy that values participation, the reality of how change practitioners actually solicit and use input tells a different story.

What do HR managers involved in major change initiatives actually do to foster employee participation? Researchers Laurie Lewis and Travis Russ (2012) explored this question in an empirical study with 26 human resources managers. They investigated the actual practices that HR managers utilized to solicit and use employee input during major organizational change projects. The study identified four different approaches that are described below: open, political, restricted, and advisory.

  1. Open Approach
    The first style, the open approach, is an informal approach that invites people to offer their input and to talk about the issues involved in a change initiative. HR managers reported that employee input was more likely to be considered if the input was deemed to be “correctly motivated” and likely to improve the process, and rejected if it was “complaining for the sake of complaining.”
  2. Political Approach
    The second style, the political approach, was described as being more strategic in orientation, in contrast to the open approach. HR managers sought input from powerful individuals, regardless of whether the input would be considered relevant or important. Input would be used if it came from the “right people” who might contribute significant resources to the change project, such as money or other services. Given the high power status of those consulted, the change agenda might be altered based on this input.
  3. Restricted Approach
    The third style, the restricted approach, was the most commonly described method used by HR managers. Input was sought from key stakeholders: Individuals perceived to be most affected by the change, high performers, and those described as knowledgeable and savvy. However, input from key stakeholders was rejected if it did not reflect a majority view, was not perceived as relevant to the general population, or was perceived as unworkable. Unique comments, comments perceived as ‘venting’ or ‘lashing out’ and comments that were perceived to be self- motivated or not aligned with decisions that were already made, were discarded. Input was used to support the original change vision.
  4. Advisory Approach
    The fourth style, the advisory approach was the second most common approach to soliciting input. Input was sought from opinion leaders who occupied ‘pockets of receptivity’, those individuals perceived to be ‘thought leaders, strategic thinkers, innovators, and advocates’ who would support the change and be helpful in persuading others to become supportive. The purpose of soliciting input was to seek affirming information and, if necessary, to persuade these employees to change any negative perceptions of the intended change. Deliberate decisions were made to avoid the ‘complainers’ and in some instances, HR managers recounted examples where senior leaders dictated who would be interviewed—those individuals that senior leaders felt confident would provide the answers they expected to hear.

Examining what HR managers actually do in practice provides several important insights that can help us be more thoughtful as we strive to clarify the purpose and intent of participation. This study raises some interesting questions about our work as change practitioners. Are we as change agents engaging in “ritualistic participation,” concerned with soliciting advice from a variety of stakeholders more for “show”, advice that may not be taken seriously (Lewis & Russ, 2012)? Are we working within organizations that in reality support “pseudo-participation,” where managers give the impression of openness, but retain decision-making in their own hands? Are we focused on soliciting input that supports pre-conceived plans, or do we encourage honest and open dialogue about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a change plan? Are we consciously or inadvertently discouraging inquiry, the testing of assumptions, challenging the status quo?

As change practitioners, we need to be clear about our purpose in soliciting input, and how that input will be used. We need to acknowledge the inevitable tensions that exist between approaches that focus on persuading employees to get on board with a pre-determined change initiative, and approaches that are designed to encourage creative and critical reflection on the change vision and how to implement it.

Being effective as a change agent requires us to not only identify our own assumptions about participation, but to help others in senior leadership roles make their implicit assumptions more explicit. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves and others some tough questions:

  • What are the goals or intentions of the participation process? Is it to minimize any alterations to the change initiative?
  • Is there any potential to actually influence and change the intended direction and implementation plan, or is soliciting input an exercise in persuading employees to get on board with the change?
  • Are we just going through the motions of seeking opinions and concerns from stakeholders, concerned only about the optics?
  • Are we trying to make stakeholders more receptive to the change, or simply placating them by inviting them to give feedback?

There can be a danger in some of the simplistic, cookbook approaches to employee participation. Similarly, there is a danger in under-appreciating the skill level required by change agents to address the complex task of managing the tensions and challenges involved in soliciting and using input from employees.  Engaging employees and managers in open, honest discussion of the potential strengths and the potential pitfalls of an intended change initiative requires a specific set of skills in fostering dialogue, compassion, intestinal fortitude, and the support of senior leaders. As change agents, we need to help others learn how to express their diverse views and opinions in ways that might usefully critique and improve our change efforts so that we can move our change projects, and our organizations forward, empowering our teams, and ourselves, along the way.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed., MA, PhD(C), is a facilitator at Queen’s IRC.  As an organizational consultant and coach, Kate brings extensive experience in business, healthcare, government, and higher education.  She has designed and delivered change management and leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and leaders. Kate is passionate about enabling change agents and managers in leading and implementing change.

 

Selected References

Lewis, L. K. & Russ, T. L. (2012). Soliciting and using input during organizational change initiatives: What are practitioners doing? Management Communication Quarterly, 26(2), 267-294.

Pseudo-participation – Oxford Reference. (2016). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199298761.001.0001/acref-9780199298761-e-999.

The Stewardship of Service Excellence at the City of Vaughan

This case study examines how to recognize the desire for change and harness that energy to build and steward the development and implementation of a Service Excellence Strategy that yields concrete results and sustains the momentum required for long term success.

Abstract

The City of Vaughan embarked on a six-month transition process called ‘Building Capacity and Focus’ to design and implement an innovative approach to developing a refocused strategic plan aimed at fostering a shared vision and culture of Service Excellence throughout all City services and operations. At the end of this process, the City of Vaughan achieved the following critical milestones: unanimous council approval of the Service Excellence Strategy; a shared mindset and commitment to Service Excellence; and an organizational design and alignment of the City’s three-year budget with the priorities and goals of the Strategic Plan, while keeping the tax rate in line with targets set by Council. The City of Vaughan is one of the fastest growing municipalities in Ontario. With the vision of becoming the ‘City of Choice’, Vaughan has committed to a Term of Council Service Excellence Strategy Map focused on delivering council commitments for the remaining term of council. This involves improving citizen experience through service delivery and managing growth; operating more effectively and efficiently,  and improving staff engagement. This transformation journey will take time. It is complex, dynamic, and  requires stewardship, leadership, and management, as well as balancing current fiscal responsibilities and commitments.

Given the short time frame in which these remarkable results were achieved, this case study illustrates the value in capitalizing on a desire for change at the right moment and ensuring the proper leadership team and strategies were in place to preserve the momentum and commitment required for change in the long term. It also stresses the criticality of measuring and evaluating change at each stage of the process.

The City of Vaughan case study provides reflections on the principles, practices, and possibilities of how to successfully leverage the talent, values, and passion of its people to create breakthrough strategies to lead, manage, and sustain momentum through culture shifts and longer-term transformational changes required for success. The Sustainable Leadership Development Framework was used to measure and evaluate the alignment, integration, actions and impacts of the change process. The lessons learned provide valuable insight for the practice of leadership, management and organizational development.

Download PDF: The Stewardship of Service Excellence at the City of Vaughan

Breaking Bad News About Organizational Change

Getting the news out about an upcoming restructuring, merger or acquisition, layoff, or other major organizational change can be a challenge. No one wants to experience having their name ‘pop up’ in a new organization chart that is widely distributed online before receiving any direct personal communication from their boss. Imagine if you showed up at the office and discovered that the reason why you cannot access your email is not because of a glitch with the IT department but because you have been dismissed, and no one had the courage to tell you. Organizations and managers have a responsibility to share such news in direct and supportive ways that enable employees to understand what is changing and how they will be affected.

Why is it so hard to deliver bad news to others? Perhaps you like to be the ‘nice guy’ and find it difficult to say no, or disappoint others. You may fear that you will become the target of anger and retaliation. Being the bearer of bad news can be emotionally upsetting, challenge our self-image, and disrupt relationships. Sometimes we face situations where our own beliefs and feelings, values and principles are in conflict. Caught in the middle, we might feel a bit ambivalent, or defensive, about the decisions made by the executive team, and yet we are the ones asked to deliver the message to employees.

Bad news is defined as information that has an adverse effect on how a person views the future, and impacts how people think, feel, and behave (Bies, 2012; Buckman, 2005). How we deliver bad news affects how people interpret information, and how they cope. It not only impacts the relationship between managers and employees, but may negatively impact the company’s reputation.

Some of us have not had much experience delivering bad news. Many of us have received little or no training on how to deliver bad news to our employees. If managers are typically inexperienced and unprepared to deliver bad news, what might we learn from other professionals like doctors, nurses, and law enforcement officials that might help us with this difficult task? Using a structured approach can help you deliver bad news to individual employees in a way that will result in less anger and blame, provide a greater sense of fairness, engender greater respect for you as a manager, and help people deal with change (Bies, 2012). Consider a process with three stages: prepare, deliver, and follow-up that can help you be successful in handling these situations.

Prepare

  1. Practice. Rehearsing before delivering such news can help you appear more credible to your audience. Rehearsal can take the form of mental rehearsal, or actual practice. Try practicing at home in front of the mirror to gauge your own verbal and nonverbal behavior. According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, our body language affects how others see us, and when we are being inauthentic, our nonverbal and verbal cues are misaligned.
  2. Manage the setting. Arrange to have the discussion in a quiet and private location. Minimize interruptions. Turn off the cellphone, computer, telephone. Consider meeting with the employee in his or her office, rather than calling them into your office. Take your time.
  3. Manage your own reactions. Delivering bad news can be emotionally upsetting for managers who may feel guilty, conflicted, and focused on avoiding the situation. You need to be aware of, and manage, your own emotional reactions before sitting down with an employee. How can you keep calm, professional, and genuine?

Deliver the Message, Build the Relationship

Communication takes place on two levels: the message content and the relationship. Breaking bad news is an opportunity for you to communicate the facts of the situation and provide the rationale for decisions that have been made. It is also an important opportunity for you to pay attention to the relationship. How you maintain the respect and dignity of the employee in the conversation and convey trust may have a significant impact on your credibility, employee morale and motivation, and your relationship with employees that may continue into the future.

  1. Provide some advance warning. Just like good drivers who signal their intentions to other drivers as they prepare to make a left turn, managers need to prepare people to hear bad news. Providing advance warning of bad news provides some predictability that can help offset the shock of bad news. You can start the conversation by saying, “I have some difficult news I need to share with you.” Easing into the topic gives people a chance to prepare themselves psychologically for what comes next.
  2. Be sincere. Face-to-face delivery of bad news matters. When bad news is delivered verbally, in person, or over the phone, people will perceive you as more sincere. Face-to-face communication encourages more immediate feedback that can help you clarify the message, reduce misunderstanding, and convey trust.
  3. Deliver with clarity. Give information in small chunks. Be clear. Repeat the message. You don’t want the information you are attempting to convey to be misinterpreted. Beware of corporate ‘doublespeak’ that may confuse the message in an attempt to make the situation seem less terrible. Saying one thing, while meaning another is a sure way to undermine your credibility. Test for understanding. Summarize the information you have presented.
  4. Tell the truth. Employees expect managers to tell the truth, and truth is essential to building trust (Bies, 2012). Lying creates intense feelings of distrust and outrage. Be direct. Give people the facts. Don’t sugarcoat the message. Help people understand the situation. Identify the mitigating circumstances. Explain the rationale for decisions that have been made.
  5. Provide an adequate account. People expect a clear, valid and reasonable explanation or justification for managerial decisions and actions. Doing this well can make it less likely that employees will blame you as the manager. Inadequate accounts, on the other hand, can be demotivating, resulting in less cooperation on the part of employees, lowered productivity, and potentially increasing the risk of retaliation.
  6. Explore, empathize, validate. Encourage employees to vent. Remember, emotional reactions are normal. Validate the person’s experience in a genuine manner. You could say, “This is not what you wanted to hear” and “I can understand how you feel that way”. Acknowledging feelings helps people feel validated. Avoid getting into a debate about the merits of a decision that has already been made. Listen. Invite feedback.

Follow Up

Communicating bad news may be the first in a series of events that need to happen to ensure a smooth transition to a new reality. Your role as a manager is to continue to provide the support and direction needed to help people manage this transition. In the shock of the moment, people may not process or remember all of the details. Follow up with employees by inviting feedback and questions, being available, and focusing on next steps.

  1. Invite questions. Invite feedback. Ask, what questions do you have? Gently probe to explore feelings if people have not expressed them.
  2. Focus on the next steps. What can you do to help employees to focus on the future? How do you provide a sense of hope for the future? What is going to happen, when, and how? Adapting to stressful events is somewhat easier if they are predictable or controllable.
  3. Be available. Invite employees to come back to you another time with more questions and concerns.

Managers play an important role in setting the stage around the need for change in organizational life. Not all change is life-altering. Taking adequate time to plan and prepare before delivering bad news can increase your confidence and your skill in having these conversations. Paying attention to the content and delivery of the message helps employees understand the rationale for change, maintains trust, and reduces anger and blame. If you act with integrity, people may not like the message, but they might respect the messenger. And that might mean they are more willing to work with you to make the changes that are necessary to create new possibilities for the future.

 

About the Author

Kate Sikerbol

Kate Sikerbol, PhD (Candidate) is a facilitator with Queens IRC and an organizational consultant and coach with extensive experience in business, healthcare, government and higher education. Kate has designed and delivered change management programs, leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based and appreciative approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and executives. She is passionate about creating capability for change in teams, organizations, and communities. Kate is the lead facilitator for Queen’s IRC Change Management program.

 

Selected References

Bies, R. J. (2012). The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis. Journal of Management, Vol 26, 1-18.

Buckman, R. (2005). Breaking bad news: The S-P-I-K-E-S strategy. Community Oncology, 2, 138-142.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://www.ted.com/speakers/amy_cuddy.

Gallo, A. (2015). How to deliver bad news to your employees. Harvard Business Review, March 30, 2015.

Hunter Harrison and the Transformation of Canadian National Railway

When Hunter Harrison joined the recently-privatized Canadian National Railway (CNR) in 1998 as Chief Operating Officer, the company was generally acknowledged as one of the worst railroads in North America, highly indebted, perpetually in the red, and losing market share to the more efficient, flexible and newly deregulated U.S. railway and trucking industries. Recruited by Chief Executive Officer, Paul Tellier, for his skills and experience at Illinois Central, Harrison along with Tellier moved swiftly to transform CNR into a “scheduled precision railway” and to introduce needed efficiencies. Soon thereafter the company shed over 11,000 employees and thousands of miles of track.

After Tellier left the company in 2003, Harrison was appointed as his successor. The challenge was enormous. A cultural overhang still existed from the railway’s public sector days when it was more of an employment generation device than a business, complete with regionalism, isolation from commercial pressures, formal chains of command, hostile unions and a culture of entitlement. Would Harrison be able to complete the transformation or would the company sink back into mediocrity? Fast forward to 2008 and CNR was then widely recognized as the most efficient railway in North America. How he accomplished this cultural transformation is nothing short of miraculous.

An effective change leader needs five skills which I call the five Ps: Passion, Plan, Persuasion, Partnering and Perseverance, and Harrison had all of them in abundance.

Download PDF: Hunter Harrison and the Transformation of Canadian National Railway

>> This paper is one chapter from Dr. Carol A. Beatty’s e-book, The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change. The complete e-book is now available on our website at no charge: Download

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