Change management models, formulas, and checklists are red herrings for effective change leadership.
The success of change management processes is determined by the stewardship of stakeholders. It is about the people in the organization.
In every change process, there are change agents, converts, challengers, and the change resistant. Individuals not leading and championing change are change recipients. Recipients often experience and respond to change with strong emotions, even when the promised outcome of the change is positive. According to Beth Gazley and Katha Kissman in Transformational Governance, “Different people react to change in different ways and with different timing.” Left unmanaged these experiences and responses will derail, prolong, or stop the change process.
3 Key Components of Stakeholder Stewardship
As an employee and consultant, I have observed or helped to repair unsuccessful change processes. In all these situations the failure resulted from the top leaders’ failure to actively engage and compassionately support change recipients. The following are three key components of stakeholder stewardship.
Change leaders must approach stakeholders and their interests with empathy and great care. In other words, they must be compassionate. Stakeholder responses will range from disinterest to enthusiasm to resistance. Many leaders fail implementing change because they focus solely on results and ignore, or merely give lip service to, the emotional investment of stakeholders. Leaders must tend to the cognitive and emotional impacts of change.
Leaders must anticipate the potential universe of stakeholder responses and develop a plan to address each one. This gives all stakeholders the opportunity to have their individual emotional needs met. This includes presenting quantitative evidence to establish the “why” and urgency behind the change for some stakeholders or having a candid “what is in it for me” discussion with a resistant stakeholder. This type of preparation requires empathy, a willingness to understand where each stakeholder is coming from, and care for them as an important part of the process.
Many change failures result from communication failures. Communication before and during a change process should occur more often than feels comfortable, and it must include two-way communication—a dialogue rather than directives. Presenting the proposed change, supporting evidence, and expected results alone is insufficient to gain buy-in from change recipients who may have questions or are resistant to change. Stakeholders must have the opportunity to provide real input.
Dialogue also gives leaders the opportunity to advocate for the change and influence stakeholders.
A slow change process is a direct consequence of engaging in meaningful dialogue. But going slow and achieving buy-in is more likely to produce a successful process than going fast and alone.
I have witnessed, up close, two change processes fail dramatically because the top leader initiated a process with no intention of truly considering stakeholder input. They had already decided that they had all the answers. Successful change requires collaboration. No single person, regardless of how long they have been with the organization, can have all the answers.
Leaders must guide change with an openness to learn from the process and stakeholder input and adjust the plan.
The leader’s openness to learn must be authentic. Stakeholders can easily identify a leader who has already made up their mind. Stakeholders feel disrespected, taken for granted, and manipulated when a leader merely goes through the motions of gathering input rather than truly listening. This arrogant approach destroys trust and sends the message that the leader isn’t open to learning or collaboration.
No one wants to follow a know-it-all. Leaders must put their egos aside and prioritize pursuing the best outcome.
Change management is complex
It requires thoughtful planning, clear strategy, and adaptability as it relates to results and people. Change management at its core is people management.
Whitney Bandemer is a member of PbPI and Principal at WB Consulting. WB Consulting partners with organizations to identify, plan, and overcome organizational challenges. Their goal is to create environments where people are free to develop into their full potential and organizations are free from inefficient operations, ineffective leadership, and incomplete projects.