Why Are Leaders So Afraid of Change?
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Organizations and teams fequently undergo changes in leadership or structure -- when organizations make cuts in their workforce, spin off businesses or functions or merge with or acquire new businesses for their portfolio. A new leader may come in from outside, or an internal member of the leadership team may be promoted to CEO.
These events provide leaders with opportunities to create a new chapter and new beginnings -- and that is a good thing.
But it doesn’t really work to simply jump from one chapter to another without a proper transition. Nor does that phase need to be long. However, it will give organizations and teams the chance to bring closure and completion to how things previously were done before the start of the next chapter, when things may operate in a new or different way.
The bigger the change, the bigger and more important the transition; and those who underestimate that need will find themselves carrying forward old baggage from one initiative, chapter or relationship to the next. The result will likely be a repeat of the same mistakes, traps and dysfunctional dynamics.
This task -- the management of transitioning between phases -- has a name: “change management.” But, unfortunately, most organizations and teams are not good at it; and that's where the leader comes in. He or she must also have a steady hand in leading the organization from old to new. So, what exactly should a leader's transitional role entail?
Creating a safe space
If people are harboring negative emotions, frustrations or resentments from past experiences, the leader needs to create a safe space for people to communicate, share and express their feelings, so they can then let them go.
For example, I worked with an organization trying to rebuild its team spirit and focus after having gone through a number of layoff cycles over the previous two years. People were traumatized from these events, and upset to see their teammates let go. They were frustrated about the lack of communication they had seen from leadership during those challenging times.
Further, they were resentful about having to do more work with fewer resources. And they felt anxious about future additional cuts that might threaten their own job security. Needless to say, it was going to be tough to bring back motivation, focus and commitment to this team.
Morever, sometimes people have specific baggage about the leaders. If leaders want to drive and inspire their teams through an effective transition, they need to be open to feedback and criticism about themselves, too.
I have seen this play out many times: Leaders want to start a new chapter, but people are still emotionally or mentally stuck in the past. They point to doubts about the leaders like: “Why should we trust them this time when they let us down last time?” “What will be different in this new phase?” Or: “Why should we fully trust our leaders and get on board wholeheartedly?”
This is why leaders who are courageous will facilitate an open dialogue at this point with their employees and invite, even encourage, people to fully express their feelings and lay on the table all their doubts and concerns. These leaders will understand the phrase “You have to empty the glass before you can fill it with something new.”
A transformational cleansing
The resulting team cleansing can be transformational. However, it requires leaders to confront, listen, understand and own what their people are feeling, with genuine courage and vulnerability and an absence of defensiveness. When people "get" that their leaders are genuine, they will transition to the next phase and finally be mentally available to commit to what's next, with real passion and hope.
This transition, especially when it involves confronting past sentiments and criticisms, is not easy for most leaders. In fact, most leaders avoid it. Why?
Five reasons leaders might find a transition rocky
- They take the negative feedback and criticism personally. So, they get personally offended and feel invalidated; they then push the feedback away.
- They don’t know how to deal with people’s emotions, fearing that things will get out of hand and they won’t be able to control the discussion or their team.
- They worry that meetings and discussions will essentially turn into whining sessions and that they won't be able to steer them into productive conversations.
- They fear that if they allow people too much freedom of expression, they may have a mutiny on their hands. But they don't understand that in most organizations people already operate in somewhat of an informal “mutiny” -- it’s called “paying lip service” or “passive aggressive” behavior.
- They believe that by allowing people to express their negative sentiments, any issues will become worse. “If we allow people to voice their frustrations, it will accentuate the issues,” leaders have told me; so they keep the issues suppressed.
- They have the naïve or old-school expectation that because they are “the boss,” their people should line up with their priorities automatically. “This is not a democracy," these leaders will say. "People should line up and not complain.”
But none of these six beliefs is valid. Instead, leaders need to apply personal courage and self-confidence, and be open and vulnerable with their people.
And not every leader is ready for that.
But those who are will remember that no matter how high in rank they are in the corporate hierarchy -- CEO, EVP, SVP, VP or director -- they, like their teams, are people first. And when "people" communicate openly, authentically and courageously, it makes all the difference in taking things to a new level.