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If you want to lead change, be a teacher

by Jennifer McCoy

Whilst there are numerous reasons for failures, the overwhelming reason is that the people involved, the people who have to make the change happen, don’t really believe that change is needed. They haven't been convinced that change is necessary. Or they don't want it to happen because they fear it's going to hurt them.

Understanding the role people play in the success of any change project is the key to change. Change affects people. You might want to change technology, products, curriculum, room setup, buildings. In every case people have to change – the way the do things, the people they work with, the skills that so far have served them well; perhaps, if location change is required, even their family arrangements.

So, when people are faced with change, the first thing they do is put up walls of defence. If you try to break down those walls by dictating strategies, with bullying, with anger born out of frustration - they will just strengthen their defences in resistance. The only way to lower those walls is to back off, withdraw the idea that they are under attack. Instead, focus on explaining the situation, helping people to understand why there is a need to change, the size of the challenge and the value of the solution you are offering. You need to teach them.

Did you know 70% of all change initiatives fail? 1

Yet so often leaders impose the changes, announce them unexpectedly, limit the information and expect instant agreement. Faced with resistance they resort to language that is emotional and defensive.

Management experts 2, use Barack Obama as an example of a leader who has learned how to talk to people about change. In trying to persuade people to accept his $ Trillion Stimulus Package, Obama said "I don’t necessarily have all the answers; my insight isn’t necessarily perfect, but here’s the challenge we all face." He remained calm, controlled and sounded eminently believable, 'teaching' people about the challenge, explaining his understanding of it and asking them to accept his solution.

What do your staff say about change? A recent survey 3 of 2.400 employees, discovered staff don't always mind change - younger staff thrive on it. What they want is to be consulted, given an opportunity to discuss how the changes will affect them and to give their ideas on how to make things work. They want to be involved in implementing the changes. They also want to know how the change will benefit them, why there's a need for change.

No matter what the change is you want to implement, you must first convince people that the change is necessary. You need to persuade them that the pain will be worthwhile and that together you will try to find solutions.

So, it's important not to get emotional. The more intense the change, the less emotional you should be and the less intense your language. People need to know you're trustworthy, that you are giving simply the facts as accurately as possible, that you can be patient even when you answer questions for the 20th time. Only then will people will begin to lower their defences and start to listen. Learn from Barack Obama says Mark Murphy:
"Stay calm and rational. Be a teacher".

1 Beer, Michael and Nitin Nohria: (2000) Cracking the code of change.
http://hbr.harvardbusiness.org/search/Nitin+Nohria/0/author
Harvard Business Review May-June 2000.
2 Mark Murphy: (2009) What Barack Obama Knows About Managing Change.
http://www.leadershipiq.com/index.php/free-videos
(web-life may be limited)
3 James Adonis: (2008) Employee Enragement: Why people hate working for you.