Sweeping a staircase? Start at the top
It might sound obvious, but it’s true of more than stairs. In our profession, it means that if you want to change an organisation, you have to start with managers. Why? Because they are the ones who are largely responsible for employee engagement, and therefore employees’ readiness to change and look ahead to the future. And, of course, good examples tend to be followed. How managers lead change determines the extent to which employees follow suit and take action.
This isn’t a gut feeling – it’s a fact. According to McKinsey research, change processes are 5.3 times more likely to succeed if leaders set the right example. So before an organisation can communicate change to its employees, managers must be on board. With the end goal in sight, the organisation needs to make clear how its leaders are expected to behave, how they can set the right example and how they can take their team along with them in the change. It’s not about imposing something top down: the organisation needs a clear picture of how it can best facilitate leaders first. Only then can it start to shape interventions that support and enable leadership development.
Employees look to top management for direction and a vision of the future, and to their own manager for clarification and how to apply this direction and vision in their daily work. In turn, leaders must be ready, able and willing. A message from leaders will only be taken seriously if they tell it with conviction and show the right behaviour for the intended change. A lot can go wrong – fast – whether it’s due to an insufficiently convincing story, a failure to clarify or repeat the story, a lack of support for the story from managers, or lapses in a manager’s behaviour. All of which are equally damaging to the extent to which employees are ready for change.
"A message from leaders will only be taken seriously if they tell it with conviction and show the right behaviour for the intended change."
But communication alone isn’t enough if you really want to enable managers to lead change. HR plays a crucial role, facilitating the support that managers need to put the leadership vision into practice. That means training people in new behaviours and supporting managers in creating an environment in which it is safe to change. As well as helping them to communicate with employees so as to address any potential resistance to change.
"Before managers change their behaviour, they need to understand the impact their behaviour has on employees."
Managers need to know what sort of behaviour does or doesn’t contribute to the desired change. And before they can change their behaviour, they need to understand the impact it has on employees. That’s where it starts, because everyone's behaviour is shaped by their unconscious biases, past experiences and beliefs. But focusing only on results will never lead to personal change. Rather, those who focus on change will see real results.