For some time, I’ve been buried deep in initiatives for four big clients. All are different projects and outcomes with one consistency between them being that they involve culture change. Whatever the culture change is focused on, I know that if the leadership doesn’t engage well, we have a risk of reduced impact at other levels of the organisation. I’m not saying no impact as I am a big proponent of culture change being a virus that can be encouraged despite lack of leadership, but in most cases, if the leaders don’t buy in, then the staff will be reluctant to engage.
Not all of these projects have a major training element, but all have some ‘new tool or approach’ for people to get their head round. Personally, I still find that humans engage in culture change with and through other humans rather than e-mechanisms as you can’t catch enthusiasm or talk through concerns with a computer (yet), so inevitably all our projects have workshop sessions of some type.
In planning these, I have sought to engage leadership so they take some degree of ownership of how we conduct these, and how leaders engage in the process. As a result, we have routinely come up against different views to the same question regarding whether leaders should be in the same ‘introductory’ sessions as their teams. I’ve noticed a number of clear positions taken which I think are a reflection on the individual leader that may have clear impact on the change initiative.
The ‘My team can say anything in front of me’ position
In this perspective, the leader is often opting to live in a place of the culture we are aiming for rather than the culture we may have today. The risk here is that people are not given the right to go on the change journey by asking questions of the facilitator and coming to their own conclusions.
The other version of this perspective is that some believe that to be the case in the here and now, as in thinking that their staff can be 100% full and frank with them. The risk here is twofold i.e. what if the leader is deluding themselves as they can’t see where staff are not being 100% frank with them and secondly, the change is a ‘new thing’ and often new things reset the environment a little while people check in to see if they can engage in the way they would expect to, so the manager runs the risk that the reset goes wrong.
Of course they may be right and that’s great, but you have to be really well informed to know.
The ‘I want to be there to steer the discussion’ position
As I facilitator of change, I’ve learned that this is not normally a judgement about me and my team and our ability to facilitate to the objective we have set, or to handle all of the questions and concerns that are raised. I mean, you do know that’s why you brought us in?
Normally this is an indication of the leaders comfort with the whole programme. It often means they haven’t heard what they need to get clarity on what it means for them. It can sometimes mean they feel the process is negating their leadership, which can sometimes happen in large scale corporate roll outs.
Now and again it’s about their comfort as a leader, their willingness to let go of the reins of control and once in a blue moon, they are concerned about what their team might say about them and their behaviour. The risks here are that the leader is present for the wrong reasons and they block the opportunity that staff have to engage and understand the way they need to buy in. The secondary risk is that in the workplace, the leaders need to control might diminish the possibilities of the change once they leave the session.
The ‘leaders are different and need special attention’ position
This can be seen as only one step removed from ‘I’m so senior I don’t need to attend these things’, but watch out as there are layers to this one. Some senior people do think they need special treatment just because of their position, which in the modern world is a cultural anachronism that you’ve just got to deal with. But often when this comes up, it’s the leader asking for a safe space to explore the topic so they don’t look foolish at worst or ill informed at best when in front of their people. When the workshops have a degree of ‘try it and see’ to the new tool or approach, I have real sympathy for their worry, because they are not going to feel comfortable trying something they are unsure of in front of staff. I would just rather they were honest about it than covering it up as that way my team are best placed to support them in the session (yes that too is what we are there for).
The ‘give staff a safe space to engage’ position
Many leaders recognise there are times that staff need to have the right to query and challenge the initiative to understand it, and that having the boss there gets in the way as they don’t want to say it in front of them. You don’t need to be a bad boss for this to be the case, as I’ve had people keeping quiet because they don’t want to let their manager down. But remember, it’s change, and in change people need to check the shifting grounds of what is safe and what isn’t.
In situations where there is a ‘try it’ element to the workshop, not all staff want to find themselves sitting opposite a manager as they have a go at something for the first time any more than some leaders don’t want to look bad in front of staff. In exploring this approach amongst leaders, someone often challenges it with the argument of ‘surely openness is where we want to get to, so why not start as we mean to go on’ which leads us back to the first example, and whether the change is a journey to go on or something you have decided ‘everyone needs to leap into, or get off the bus’.
Overall, I don’t really want to argue the merits and demerits of each position but raise the key points that I feel often get ignored in the discussion:
Culture change is a special kind of change, so as a leader make sure you are challenging your own preferences so you don’t make your first step a misstep.
theCHANGEfactor™ brand was established in 1999 in the UK by Martin Fenwick. Prior to coming to New Zealand this resulted in projects in Belgium, Germany and France as well as throughout the UK.