Don’t Let Your Eagerness for Change Undermine It
How to Make Sure You and Your Team Have the Energy and Resources to Go the Distance
Early in my career I was working for a large multinational company at a time when the CEO launched a very large transformation. Soon afterwards, he sent a video out to all of the employees saying how pleased he was that the transformation was complete and that the company was on track to go in the new direction.
The problem was, at my level of the organization, we had not even met with our staff yet, or started anything related to the transformation. We were confused. Some people thought: “Well, if he thinks we’re done, then we must not be doing anything.”
This was a company of about 110,000 people, but I have also seen the same thing happen in smaller companies. Leaders start out enthusiastic and excited about change, but by the time it filters down to the people charged with actually making it happen, very little change occurs.
A CEO’s optimism, enthusiasm, and commitment is absolutely necessary when leading change. It’s just not enough, and if it’s not managed well, it can sabotage your change efforts.
Often when organizations initiate change, there is a big enthusiasm gap between the leaders cheerleading the change and the employees tasked with carrying it out. This energy disparity can lead to all kinds of unintended negative consequences. So what causes it?
Part of it is timing. As CEO, you are the one making strategic decisions, deciding what changes are needed, and launching them. You and your leadership team are the ones deciding when a change should start and when it will be fully implemented. There is usually a lag time between when these decisions are made and when they are expected to be carried out.
CEOs also look at change from the 35,000-foot level, so change may appear easier and faster to you than it does at ground level. You may not recognize that deciding to launch a change requires a different type and level of energy than what is needed to adopt new activities and behaviors to carry it out. As a result, you may:
- Underestimate the effort required and the difficulty and impact of the change for the people affected. A change that may appear low-risk and simple to executives may be perceived as complex and risky for the frontline employees tasked with carrying it out. An online survey of more than 10,000 leaders and employees found that 66% of CEOs were willing to take a risk when it came to change versus 24% of employees. This is not surprising when you consider that most of the work of any change initiative falls to the mid-level managers and the frontline employees of the organization.
- Overestimate the organization’s change capacity. Change capacity is the ability of your organization to move through any change while maintaining operations and your ability to handle future changes. If you overestimate this capacity, you will likely fail to consider all that is required at the operational level to successfully carry out the change.
- Get tired, give up, and move on, or — like the CEO in my example above — declare victory too soon. In his book, “Leading Change,” John Kotter warns “it is the premature victory celebration that kills momentum. And then the powerful forces associated with tradition take over.” I have seen CEOs start out enthusiastic and full of energy only to lose their motivation and momentum because they didn’t realize how long it would take to get the work done to see the change through to fulfillment and get a return on investment.
Every change has two dimensions. The first is the event — the decision to make a change. The second is the Whitespace, the journey people need to go through to achieve the intended outcome. For example, if the event is the decision to buy a treadmill to get fit, the Whitespace is the habits and space you need to use the treadmill consistently to get in shape. Having the discipline to work out requires much more energy than the decision to buy a piece of exercise equipment!
Energy and perseverance are especially crucial after the initial enthusiasm for change starts to fade and you are working to achieve the goal. Because CEOs are not the ones generally doing the tasks required for change, it’s easy for their enthusiasm to fade before their employees have completed their journey. In that case, you may not allocate sufficient time, support, and resources for the people doing the work to achieve the goal. You may move on to the next change, leaving people feeling stranded without sufficient support.
If this becomes a consistent pattern in the organization, the employees will learn to avoid change, and it will become harder for the organization to achieve their outcomes. The situation is made worse if you label your employees’ lack of readiness as resistance. If you succumb to the mistaken belief that people inherently resist change, rather than understanding their hesitance as a lack of readiness, you may find your current and future change efforts sabotaged.
So how can this scenario be avoided? Here are three steps you can take to help ensure that you and your employees have the energy to undertake and implement healthy organizational change:
- Engage with middle managers and employees to assess the impact of the proposed changes on the daily operation, the people who will do the heavy lifting, and other changes currently being implemented in the organization.
- Set the timeline for your change initiative based on the journey that must be taken and not on implementation of an event. And only set the timeline after you have assessed and know the capacity and readiness of the organization and the people who will adopt the new activities.
- Monitor and acknowledge progress (qualitatively and quantitatively) frequently at the lowest level of the organization where the new activities must be adopted. Adjust and align the activities with the level of readiness.
Taking these steps will help build your organization’s readiness for change and ensure that your optimism and enthusiasm are grounded on preparing, supporting, and encouraging your employees through the process.
As CEO, you have to look at it strategically from your level of the organization, but you also have to recognize that simply launching change doesn’t actually make the change happen. And you need to ensure you’ve got the energy, time, and resources to go the distance that’s required if you want healthy and sustainable change.
Written by Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner.
Have you read?
Best CEOs In The World, 2022.
Global Passport Ranking, 2022.
World’s Richest People (Top Billionaires, 2022).
Economy Rankings: Largest countries by GDP, 2022.
Top Citizenship and Residency by Investment Programs, 2022.
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