A lot of my culture change projects involve me watching leaders in action, either preparing for change, working through the change with other leaders, or auctioning change with their teams. In doing so I have noted that, for many leaders, there is a default approach that underpins their leadership style.
When asked, ‘how are we going to tackle this with your team?’ The answer is predominantly built on the ‘Tell premise’.
When watching their approach with teams the approach is also built on the ‘Tell premise’
Most managers think that they are there to Tell people what they need to know, how it’s going to be, what the answer is, how to solve the problem etc etc.
This is no surprise, when you consider that most managers are promoted on the basis of their proven expertise, their track record in delivery and their experience. You know what to do, you know what has happened before and your track record has shown you that your instincts are good. On top of that, you are the manager and isn’t that what you are there for?
The problem with building a leadership style based on this approach is a) when you don’t know the answer and b) when people need to engage and align for themselves in order to get a result. True Culture change is full of the former and built on the latter.
On a day to day basis, managers will meet situations where, if they were honest, they would not know the answer with certainty. They may have an idea. They may have one answer. They could have a preferred approach. But unless the situation is governed by legal statute or hard and fast policy then many situations occur where there is more than one answer. Indeed legal colleagues will often tell me that in the case of the former there is still more than one answer.
So there is actually no need for managers to operate with the ‘Tell premise’. In fact if they didn’t do so, they would find culture change so much easier. I think that they would find so many things easier.
As a manager and then as an executive coach I found that life got a whole lot easier if I just asked a question.
Think about it. I didn’t need to be an expert in physics to ask a question of a physicist. I didn’t need a PhD in Economics to ask a question of an economist. As a mechanical engineer as IT and control engineering was burgeoning, I was able to manage multi-discipline teams just by asking a question. In asking a question you can then just listen to the answer and tell if its given with confidence or whether its a guess. You can listen to see if the answer shows that there is information missing and you can supply it. You can listen to see if the answer is a risky strategy and then perhaps you offer an alternative.
If you tell there is only one outcome. You’ve told.
The ‘Tell premise’ requires expertise in the topic that you are talking about. The ‘questioning approach’ just requires an ability to ask questions. If you think about it, what should be the most natural? As children we spend all our life asking questions, before we have enough knowledge to tell anyone anything.
Asking questions is part of our wiring. Telling requires knowledge.
And when it comes to culture change, are people going to come along to this new place because you tell them or because they convince themselves? And there lies the beauty of a ‘questioning approach’. By asking people ‘how could you benefit?’, ‘what’s in this for you?’, ‘How would this make your job easier?’, ‘what would your customer see?, they begin to convince themselves.
So if the questioning approach has such a lot going for it why do you think more leaders don’t opt for it?
If you’ve experienced a culture change initiative in your past, you have probably come out of it thinking ‘I wonder if it would have gone better, if we had taken more time to get people ready?’. And the answer would generally be ‘yes’, leading to the next question which would be ‘how?’
I am a strong advocate for all change programmes starting the way a good project manager will start a major project: with a lot of prep up front to make the implementation easier. More and more people are including a change readiness survey into that prep, with a view to the preparation being more appropriate to the state the organisation finds itself in. This is an excellent intent, and exactly why I have run my own change readiness survey for the last decade.
But where there are surveys, there are problems of interpretation so its best to be ready for them before you launch into yours.
It’s a Clue not a Truth
It doesn’t matter what kind of survey, from change readiness to employee engagement, there are people who will invest in them as if they are a black and white truth. Those that take this approach then advocate ‘if they answer this way then it must mean they think that way’.
I once convinced an organisation to let me interview a group of staff about ‘why’ they had answered questions the way they did in a survey that had been used for three years to develop an improvement strategy. It turned out that managers were interpreting meaning in a very different way to staff. The over-riding clue was that people weren’t happy, but why they weren’t was not as simple as had been thought.
So treat change readiness survey answers as clues and insights rather than a black and white truth.
Individual versus Organisational
When people answer a survey they do so from their own perspective and the context that they find themselves in. When people go through organisational change they do so in their own way and at their own pace. Most organisational change is not individualized i.e. the changes happen to everyone regardless of their context and how they deal with uncertainty. So there is a mismatch here i.e. Change is dealt with at the individual level but managed and implemented at the organisational.
Any readiness survey that tells you how the individual ‘feels’ about change will have a shortfall when planning at the organisational level whilst any readiness survey that is organisationally focused will not accurately reflect individual readiness.
Does this matter?
Once again it depends on what you do with it. A survey that focuses on the individual is of most use to the manager of that individual. A survey that is organisational is of most use to the change manager, the leadership and the planning team.
So when it comes to change readiness surveys don’t assume they tell you what they don’t.
Drawing the line at the right time
This might sound obvious, but who answers the questions dictates the outcomes. A survey that is only answered by managers will have a management bias. The best change readiness survey is one that is answered by everyone in the organisation but in these days of survey fatigue many companies don’t want to go there. In addition if the change is not out in the open then it is not a good move to set a hare running by surveying employees about change readiness before the change is announced. This will mean that you are very lucky if you can run the perfect survey (100% involvement and 100% perfect timing) so be aware that what you are able to run may have a degree of imperfection which you need to allow for in your interpretation.
Overall a change readiness survey is better than no change readiness survey if you set out with the right perspective on what it tells you. I use them to engage the managers in thinking about their role in making the change happen (and happen well) and to introduce the concepts of leadership through transition, and dealing with uncertainty.
Whether the organisation is ready or not the change is still coming and leaders will need to lead that change at their level with their teams, survey or not.
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