Change Leadership: People, not Processes

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 20th March 2015

A quick search on ‘change management theory’ will show you just what a popular subject this is; my first generic search while preparing this post generated nearly 44 million hits.

Common to many of the theories, however, is an assumption that it is mostly about planning, process, control and project management. My considered and objective view on this would be… it’s poppycock.

Putting people at the heart of change leadership

Change Leadership: People, not Processes

The majority of change any contemporary leader will need to bring about will stand or fall on one single thing, the same single thing that most organisational success rests on: people.

Reactions to change can’t be shown on a Gantt chart or a spreadsheet, no matter how many pivot tables and colourful 3D graphs it contains. People tend to respond to change emotionally. Change has a psychological impact and affects the way people feel: about the change, sure, but also about the organisation, about the leader, about their job, and about themselves.

Change that has been forced upon people can make them feel powerless and insignificant, as if they don’t matter and are just pawns, Equally, spurious consultation around a fait accompli is generally transparent to people, and typically disengages them even more than no communication at all.

Gaining trust through change leadership

It’s often said that people fear change, but this is not true in my experience. People may fear the unknown, they may mistrust the motives of their bosses or the organisation (sometimes with good reason), they may see ulterior motives even where none exist, and they may have become cynical after being misled or damaged by previous changes. All of this makes the management of change complex and potentially fraught with hazards.

A clue, though; perhaps it’s this focus on ‘managing’ the change that is at the root of many of those reactions. In my view, change shouldn’t be ‘managed’, it should be ‘led’. Read about ‘managing’ the change, and it often seems to be about logistics and technicalities. Think about ‘leading’ a change, and it’s possible to imagine that it requires direction, motivation, communication, and clarity about outcomes, intentions and contributions.

In short: if change is considered as a human activity, where people are affected and given the opportunity to participate, understand and shape (rather than being treated as ‘resources’ or as a variable in a technical initiative), then leaders might gain trust and support. Only by approaching change in this way is it possible to unlock ideas and innovation, and engage and enthuse those who need to make it happen.

As an old and treasured quote says…

“Those who plan the battles rarely battle the plans”.

Managing change is covered in more depth on our leadership and management courses.

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