In today’s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, it is readily accepted that adapting to change is essential for businesses. We know that successful change implementation comes down to the individual, but we are still struggling with the way we approach organizational change. What is interesting about some of the research coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it suggests that the more change we experience, the more resilient we become. We are more adaptable to change than we think, particularly if leaders demonstrate the way forward by embracing a growth mindset.
The more you build a learning or “growth” culture in the organization, the easier change will become. Focusing on the progress, as opposed to aiming for perfection, is an important part of introducing change through a learning lens. Positive reinforcement for the steps that have been taken, however shaky or imperfect those steps may be, encourages the behavioral changes necessary for an individual to embrace the learning part of the process. Being honest and realistic about the challenges ahead (and outlining the development opportunities available to different teams and departments in smaller meetings) tends to be effective.
For this approach to work, it is essential for the senior leadership team to model the desired behaviours and demonstrate an early and highly visible openness to actively learning. People will notice how leaders are behaving, which will help them build trust and faith in the process.
For example, a medium-sized business in the construction industry went through several years of continued growth. Management determined that due to its growth in size and its inconsistent approach to employee performance, it needed to implement a more formal and objective system of performance management. Company leadership did this with the help of an external consultant. All people managers (from the executive group down) attended training sessions to learn how to conduct effective performance conversations with their teams. Every employee in the company was taught to use their new performance evaluation tool. The implementation of a performance management system, after 50 years without one, was a massive change for employees and managers, particularly the concept of regular one-on-one performance check-ins. The company was divided into two divisions. Both divisions went through the training and learned the new tool, but the change was managed differently.
Division A had a leader who, while supporting the implementation of a performance management tool for all employees, decided that he did not have enough time to invest in the project; therefore, he did not conduct the requested one-on-ones with his leadership team, who had mixed motivation about doing the same with their own teams. The results of this were a “hit or miss” type of program implementation, and one year later, there are still many employees (and managers) who are not actively participating in the performance management process.
Division B had a leader who had crafted his own performance goals, shared them with his leadership team, and had team members present their own goals for feedback from the rest of the group. Division B spent more time with the consultant to understand the possible pitfalls and opportunities that the new process presented. Once the leadership team had crafted its goals and undergone the training, team members had their own performance conversations with their general manager. This allowed the team members to experience the change before asking their employees to do the same, and they subsequently began implementing the new performance process throughout their respective divisions. One year later, Division B boasted 92 percent compliance with goal setting and one-on-one performance conversations. When surveyed, 84 percent of Division B’s members thought the change had been positive for their work culture and the increased performance of their division.
Leadership behavior can serve as a model for lifelong learning, which in turn creates more adaptable work environments. Being honest with your team, sharing anticipated challenges, and involving people in the process—especially, allowing them to take ownership when appropriate—will help individuals accept change and embrace it.