Death and taxes have traditionally been viewed as the two guarantees in life, but I think a third item has officially made the list: change.
The pace of change accelerates with each passing, day, month, and year. The exponential growth of technology has enabled new products, services, and businesses to rise to prominence in short order, and has caused others to become obsolete just as quickly.
Yet research has shown that 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, cost more, or take longer than expected. Leading people through change is not a natural-born talent for most people. It’s a skill that must be developed and practiced over time for leaders to become comfortable navigating the complexities of organizational change.
The one must-have ingredient of successful change efforts is trust. If the people in an organization don’t trust their leaders, they won’t buy-in to the change. They will question their motives, drag their feet, or actively work against the change. It’s critical that leaders foster a culture of trust before, during, and after a change effort if they want to have any chance of success.
Here are six specific steps leaders can take to build trust during organizational change:
- Set realistic expectations – One of the primary ways trust is eroded is a failure to meet expectations. Leaders can easily over-promise the benefits of the proposed change effort, and when those benefits aren’t achieved, trust is broken. Once employees lose trust, it’s hard to regain it, which handicaps future change efforts. Set clear and realistic expectations and then work hard to hit those deliverables.
- Address people’s concerns – Research from The Ken Blanchard Companies shows that people have predictable stages of concern when faced with a change. Leaders improve the chance of success if they proactively address those concerns, rather than finding themselves on their heels having to react to resistant employees. The first stage is information concerns. Your people need to know what the change is and why it’s needed. The second stage is personal concerns. Team members want to know how the change will impact them individually. Will I win or lose? What’s in it for me? Will there be new expectations of me? The third stage is implementation concerns. What do I do first? Second? Will the organization provide the necessary resources? Will I have enough time? Will there be new training involved? It’s critical for leaders to address these stages of concerns to alleviate fear and anxiety so their team can embrace the change effort.
- Make it safe – Employees will not embrace taking risks or innovating in new ways if they are fearful of being punished, criticized, or looked down upon for making mistakes. Leaders have the responsibility to create an environment of psychological safety where people feel safe putting themselves on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea The three most powerful behaviors that foster psychological safety are being available and approachable, explicitly inviting input and feedback, and modeling openness and fallibility. People will embrace change more completely when they feel safe to express their true thoughts and feelings without fear of admonishment.
- Share information liberally – Ken Blanchard is fond of saying, “People without information cannot act responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly.” Leaders can fall prey to not sharing information because they fear people won’t have the proper context to interpret what it means, or perhaps they feel that people may take information and act in irresponsible ways. The root of this fear is a lack of trust. The opposite of trust is control, so when leaders withhold information, they are showing a lack of trust by wanting to control what people know, when they know, and how they know it. In the absence of information, people will make up their own version of the truth, and more often than not, that version will be a more negative view of the truth than what it is in reality.
- Admit when you don’t know – As a leader, admitting you don’t know something can be one of the most powerful trust-building behaviors you can use. It shows humility and honesty to admit you don’t have all the answers. It’s easy to let our egos get in the way and not want to appear incompetent or unable. Instead of spinning the truth, evading answers, or tap-dancing around difficult questions, admit you don’t know but commit to finding the answer. Your people will trust and respect your authenticity.
- Involve others in planning and implementation – One of my favorite sayings is “Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” People take ownership over plans they create and implement. Successful change efforts are those that are done ‘with’ people, not ‘to’ people. Involve your team in planning and implementing the change effort and it will go much smoother than if you try to force it upon them.
Leading organizational change is tough work! In my viewpoint, the biggest difference between being a “leader” and a “manager” is that leaders initiate change. That responsibility comes with the challenge of being in the line of fire. You’re under the microscope and carry the weight of making the change effort a success. Rather than carrying all that weight alone, why not spread it out among your team? Get them involved, make it safe for them to participate, address their concerns, be honest and authentic in your dealings with them, and be the torchbearer for leading with trust.