Get out of the way and allow change to happen

By Joan F. Brett, Associate professor of Management

Associate Dean of Graduate Programs

He was an inspiring CEO for over 15 years, and when he left the CEO role he left an admirable legacy, but now as a member of the board of directors he is a saboteur and impediment to change and the future of the organization.

As a newly promoted regional vice president of operations, she was expected and encouraged to bring fresh ideas to a national organization. But, she found it difficult to implement change because the approaches that needed updating were initiated by other VPs sharing the table with her.

This happens at every level of the organization from the departing CEO to the newly promoted to sales manager. Leaders who hang on to what made them successful become obstacles to future organizational success. Many leaders will tell you a large part of their job is helping employees overcome resistance to change. We often think of leaders as the instigators of change and employees as the obstacles. Yet few leaders realize how they subtly resist and block needed changes.

How do you as a leader unknowingly stifle change?

You hang onto the leadership behaviors that made you successful in the past. These perspectives may no longer work with new business realties or the new direction of your industry. Much like the three piece suit that made you appealing five years and 10 pounds ago, your effective leadership behaviors of the past are not keeping up with new demands. Marshall Goldsmith highlights this phenomenon in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Much like those old leadership behaviors, the path-breaking processes that you initiated may no longer be relevant. At the time, that new process eliminated inefficiencies, but now it only creates a new set of problems. As J. Paul Getty said, "In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy."

You cling to the tasks and responsibilities from your former role and do not allow your replacement to blossom. You may think you are mentoring and guiding your new manager, but you are stymieing their success by keeping them stuck in your tracks. In The Leadership Pipeline, Ram Charan and Stephen Drotter call this clogging the leadership pipeline.

You assign employees to tasks or committees that preserve the status quo and protect your department, rather than giving the opportunity to an innovative employee who would foster radical change. You resist change by letting others be the road blocks.

How do you get out of the way?

Awareness: Be aware of your own resistance to new ideas and change. Listen to your inner tension and defenses. You may argue that you are only thinking about expediency and efficiency, but what are the deep seated reasons for your resistance? Examine the why behind your resistance.

Your interactions with others: How do you shut down new ideas that others bring to you? Remember how it felt as you moved up the ladder and others resisted your ideas. Listen to the cues employees and peers may be sending you about needed change. When more than one voice speaks for change they are trying to get your attention. A senior leader once told me that leaders whisper through a megaphone and unwanted change often reverberates as employees act on perceived messages not intended to be sent. Research shows the opposite is true for upward messages from employees. Leaders often need a loud chorus with repeated refrains to hear their employees’ recommendations and ideas.

Stop being an obstacle: Never be the first to speak when you are considering options with your staff. Doing so prematurely structures and frames the solutions and stifles new perspectives and ideas. If you are in a new role, embrace it and don't look back. Let your replacement redefine your old job. They may make a few mistakes, but they also may find processes that can eliminate inefficiencies and redundancies.

Let it go: Think about whether your past successes are blocking the way for new ideas from others. Recognize that the world has changed. The problems you solved and the solutions you adopted have now been eclipsed by new business realities. New solutions, products, and processes are required. Give permission to others to find a better way even if it means dismantling those initiatives you so proudly implemented. Celebrate with your staff when they come up with a change that is better than the one you proposed.

Model new behaviors: Become a role model for embracing and enacting new behaviors needed in your organization. In 10 Principles of Leading Change Management DeAnne Aguirre and Micah Alpern recommend that leaders “act your way into new thinking.” When senior leaders model new behaviors and embrace change it sends a large ripple throughout the organization about what is expected of all employees. If you allow your employees to watch you struggle as you learn new ways it reminds them that new behaviors take practice to become routine.

Before you can overcome your employees’ resistance to change, you need to understand how you may unknowingly be the biggest obstacle.

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