If I was given a penny for each time I read or heard that humility is key to authentic leadership, my accountant would be one happy lady indeed.
[mass noun] The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance:
‘he needs the humility to accept that their way may be better’
The John Lewis story
This morning I went to hear Andy Street speak at the Said Business School in Oxford. In October 2016 Street stepped down from his role as MD of John Lewis to focus on a political career in the West Midlands.
Reciprocate, a new-ish local business network that aims to support local communities, had invited Street to share the story of the John Lewis partnership to an audience of 200 local business people and it was a sell-out.
For those of you who like me didn’t know this; the John Lewis partnership is the biggest industrial co-operative in the UK. It has 92,000 employees or ‘partners’ who own the business. There are no external shareholders and so the company answers only to itself.
I found myself thinking, How on earth do 92,000 people on the work floor exert any kind of decision making power? and so I asked the question. (more…)
Twenty years ago John Kotter published his famous article on organisational change, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail (you can read it here). Kotter sets out the steps required for successful transformation in organisations, and explains the common pitfalls that cause 70% of change initiatives to fail. In summary, these causes of failed change according to Kotter:
- Lack of sense of urgency
- Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’
- Lack of vision
- Not removing obstacles
- Lack of planned-for short-term wins
- Declaring victory too soon
- Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture
What underpins these causes is the psychology of change, and to be more precise: the barriers we humans throw up to sabotage our own initiatives. Few but the most disenchanted employees will openly admit to sabotaging change. Few of us are ready to commit career suicide in that way, so we do it under the cover of pretense, or even without knowing it ourselves. We therefore need to consider the psychology of change as fully as we can.
What is the psychology of organisational change?
Plenty of books have been written about this, and I will not attempt to write one here. Let me instead pull one of those books into Kotter’s theory and give some examples of what I’m talking about. Robert J Marshak is a distinguished organisational dynamics scholar with an impressive organisational consulting record. He wrote an excellent book on what we (choose not to) see during organisational change: Covert Processes at Work. Managing the Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (2006). Marshak argues that rational argumentation about the change is easy by comparison, because
considering the covert, unconscious reactions and dynamics is almost always considered off-limits in the workplace
– Robert J.Marshak, Covert Processes at Work, p.13
Dimensions of organisational change
Marshak identifies one overt and five covert dimensions which impact on organisational change:
- Reasons for change: the rational and analytical logic behind the change
- Politics: people’s interests – individual and group
- Inspirations: values-based and visionary aspirations
- Emotions: affective and reactive feelings
- Mindsets: guiding beliefs and assumptions
- Psychodynamics: anxiety-based and unconscious defenses
No prizes for guessing which is which! Now, let’s see what Marshak’s dimensions have to say about Kotter’s common causes for failure.
Cause 1. Lack of sense of urgency
Sure, people can fail to be convinced by the arguments supporting the change, and counter them with ‘rational and analytical logic’ one by one. Often there are also other reasons why people fail to mobilise: they feel they lack opportunities to help shape the vision for example. A sense of ownership is required, and not being able to shape even a small part of the new world undermines the need for urgency.
Cause 2. Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’
This one can be very tricky to navigate because of inevitably conflicting interests in organisations. Good and honest insight into the political interests at work is crucial to creating a strong coalition that unites people across divides, yet is often overlooked. Stakeholder analysisis of crucial importance here.
Cause 3: Lack of vision
A shared vision shapes beliefs and principles that guide people’s decisions, which becomes even more important in uncertain times. If the vision is not clear, or it is not clearly and consistently communicated to stakeholders, staff will have great difficultly translating that vision into the mindset required to make the change a success – and stick.
Cause 4: Undercommunication
Communication is often woefully underestimated by change makers. Yes, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about it when you’re at the centre of it. Another reason is genuine anxiety around having to broach a difficult topic. Interests may clash and complicate the process, and also most people dread being the bearer of difficult news. The creeping sabotage of unconscious defenses in individuals is very often at the root of undercommunication during change.
Cause 5: Not removing obstacles
Here too we see psychodynamics such as avoidance and denial at work, along with a reluctance to challenge vested interests. It requires identifying and naming interests which so far have been operating under the radar and in fact have relied on not being called out for a long time.
Cause 6: Lack of planned-for short-term wins
Short-term wins are an important motivator and can boost confidence, which can ‘sell’ the change to people who are unconvinced or undecided. Reporting and celebrating interrim results is important as they reveal more about the vision for the future one step at a time.
Cause 7: Declaring victory too soon
This will be grist to the political mill of those opposed to the change and a perfect opportunity to reinforce their position. For others, such disappointment leads to anxiety and stress as more uncertainty and ambiguity ensues. It can be fatal to the aspirations of those who have been supportive yet anxious at the same time.
Cause 8: Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture
Organisations are made up of people who all move at their own speed. Adjusting to the new world takes some of us longer than others, and this will be felt in the time and effort it takes to see significant changes in organisational culture. Mindset, vision, aspiration, assumptions, beliefs and the stories we tell each other all influence organisational culture. These need time to evolve.
The way an organisation goes about designing and implementing change is indicative of its culture. It is the organisations that know how to tend to the unseen dimensions of change that are likely to be the most successful.
As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:
Grass doesn’t grow by pulling the blades. It grows by tending to its roots.
Clients who arrive for coaching or mentoring sessions may not realise it, but what they will be getting is disruption. For those clients who have opted to find a coach or mentor themselves, this is almost always a welcome discovery: they were ready to have their usual way of going about things disrupted.
It takes some guts to work with a coach. Engaging wholly and honestly with the one thing that holds you back – once that ‘thing’ has been identified – is brave, because this thing may not be what you expected at all.
Stages of disruption
Identifying what is putting the brakes on the client achieving what they want is absolutely essential. Clients usually arrive with some idea about this, but more often than not they are describing symptoms rather than the cause at the root of them. The first disruptive moment arrives when we realise that what the client brought to the initial coaching agenda perhaps isn’t the real issue.
Although very common, this almost always takes the client by surprise. It is also very often the point when the client starts to experience the bigger impact of their sessions: they’ll return for the next session and describe having had very different interactions with people, or a significant conversation with an important person in their (working) life.
Having encountered the disruption of a shifting coaching agenda, typically two scenarios apply next. Some clients are too shocked to find they didn’t know what the real issue was and find it hard to engage with it. This can be because they are not ready to tackle it, and it is too soon, too much, too fast. Sadly it can also be that they were ‘invited’ to work with a coach, and felt unable to tell me. It fortunately doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we have a conversation about the support the client needs and will accept and how to ensure they get it.
In the second and more frequent scenario the client responds with initial shock followed by interest, or with glee, or with cautious questions about whether they are ‘allowed’ to change the coaching agenda, seeing as we started somewhere else. These are resilient clients who decide to wrestle their issue to the ground once and for all even when its true nature isn’t revealed immediately.
The discovery that there is more to their question and that they can go and explore it, work with it, and throw themselves into tackling it often raises clients’ expectations of the coaching. It is a pivotal point in the coaching relationship where I find out the extent of my client’s engagement with their question and with the coaching process. It is also where I discover how I need to up my game to match my client’s pace!
A recent coaching client wanted to achieve a better work-life balance. About three or four sessions into our work together she made a very disruptive discovery: she admitted to herself that she was a control freak. Nobody was telling her this; her large team was stable and productive and would confide in her when they wanted to. Her line manager was positive about her performance and largely left her to it. The client had some challenging relationships in the organisation, but there were no signs of deep discord. She routinely worked 14 hours a day, and spent her weekends ‘catching up’. This pattern had become unsustainable.
It took this client some weeks to make peace with her discovery that being a control freak was the cause of her problem. Soon she was paining herself with questions like “Have I been smothering my team?” and “What if they think that I don’t trust them?”.
Even while she was grappling with this disruption in her world view, she was able to step back and let her team take over many of the tasks she had been dealing with herself for so long. Her team relished in the new responsibilities and opportunities. Their stunned manager discovered things were being done just as well or in clever new ways. She delighted in it all and focused on strategic tasks and felt on top of things. She was also able to cut her hours down dramatically.
When we came to the end of our sessions the client marvelled at where her journey had originated: a poor work-life balance. Where she previously assumed being on top of things meant personally controlling everything, she now accepted that although it got her to where she was in her career, it was time to move away from this to further her career. Soon after she landed a promotion to a high profile role which she felt excited rather than daunted by. Calling out the control freak had been the most welcome disruption at a crucial time in her career.