Conflicting advice on leading through change can feel like one coffee too many. There’s broad consensus that times ‘are a changing’, as if we’ve collectively fallen into a Dylan song. There’s less agreement however on how best to respond. When faced with disruption, leaders might feel an impulse to do something. But before doing anything, it’s better to stand back, see the bigger picture and buy yourself time to work out your next steps. What might these include?
For leaders who’ve spent the last two years in an intense, firefighting way of thinking, change has sometimes felt relentless. Over time, a multitude of theories have been developed on recognising change, but how far do these go in actually helping to manage a complex situation?
Before Covid we had VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), then came BANI (brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible) and now we have RUPT (rapid, unpredictable, paradoxical, tangled). We’re not short on theories on how to recognise disruption, tangled volatility doesn’t hide behind the sofa. The bigger issue lies in how to cope with it.
What is leading through change?
Leading through change involves creating the opportunity to play to your strengths. To get past initial reactions, it helps to take a moment, and address emotions that threaten to undermine you. Next, assess the bigger picture, then choose a strategy that best fits the circumstances. This plan of action can help you get beyond uncertainty and negative emotions so that you can calmly select the options that work best for you.
In looking at the bigger picture, many leaders have found that recent change has led to three problems in particular:
Challenges to company culture – in many organisations, hybrid working has reshaped identity and culture. What does unity look like in a future populated by fragmented teams and departments?
Managing mindsets – while working from home, people rediscovered personal values. Given that many are ready to quit their job rather than give these up, how do leaders maintain job retention?
Maintaining morale – fragmented company identity, new mindsets and a challenging business environment have eroded morale. How do leaders maintain motivation amid uncertainty?
Turbulent change is likely throughout the 2020s. Geo-political instability, transformations in technology, radical reform in social attitudes, and the consequences of the climate emergency underline the need to prepare, both for prolonged shifts in direction and for sudden seismic jolts. In response to these challenges, Working Voices has developed a range of courses in future skills, including four on leading through change.
Focusing on consequences
Amidst the grip of disruption, the desire to do something is an emotion that can lead you into an immediate response before you’ve had time to judge what the best response actually is. The consequences of this can complicate an already difficult situation. Leading through change includes the ability to recognise such emotions, and lessen their impact.
“In business, we have a bias towards action, everybody jumps in with their great idea”, explains Tom Cassidy, Head of Executive Coaching at Working Voices, “but a useful rule of thumb in times of difficulty is ‘don’t make things worse’.” Rather than giving your team a quick-fix bandage, better to rely on their talent and creativity by including them in healthier thinking aimed at implementing long-term solutions with minimum diversions and delay.
Examples of leading through change
Having played a lead role in designing the Working Voices courses on leading through change, Tom Cassidy believes it’s essential to recognise that change should be expected and prepared for.
“Think of Michael Phelps, the world champion swimmer, at the Beijing Olympics in 2008”, Cassidy says. “In the 200 metres butterfly, Phelps was hoping for a fourth gold medal out of a possible eight when his goggles slipped out of place. With water sloshing in his eyes, he was effectively swimming blind. But having prepared for this problem in training, he counted the number of strokes he needed to finish, he won the race, collected another gold medal and set a world record.” Phelps created what Cassidy calls a “pool of stability”, no pun intended, by relying on knowledge prepared in advance.
By equipping teams with ‘attractors’ – in other words, the talent, the plans and the resources that can pull them in the right direction – leaders can provide similar pools of stability to help their people stay on track in a fast-changing situation. This reliance on preparation, planning and maintaining momentum is a central theme in successfully leading through change. Relying on attractors might keep you going in the short-term, but as we’ve seen in recent months sometimes change demands a deeper response, for example:
Leading through complexity
Preparing for complexity begins with ‘gaming’ various scenarios in advance – straightforward in theory but harder in practice, which is why cabin crew encourage aircraft passengers to consider less obvious possibilities of escape. In an emergency, it might be tempting to rush ahead to the door at the end of the aisle, though in fact the exit behind you might be nearer.
Leading through complexity is about considering the options, putting plans in place, and being ready to implement them with creative flexibility. Tom Cassidy says it’s important to “get past the inside view, which leads to questions like ‘why’s this happening to me’, and instead get to an objective outside view, such as focusing on how the problem might have been tackled before.”
While complexity can feel like being caught in the bright glare of sudden jolts and challenges, uncertainty is more like cautiously tiptoeing in fog. Things are kind of OK, for now, maybe, but you don’t know whether you’re on a playing field or a clifftop. “It’s the difference between solving a puzzle and looking for a path in a forest”, says Tom Cassidy.
In looking to cope with uncertainty, a single way of thinking isn’t going to be of much value. The benefit of a true commitment to diversity and inclusion is that the wider the range of voices in the room the broader the creativity in making decisions, determining direction and escaping uncertainty.
Leading with bounded optimism
Leadership in complexity and uncertainty requires a cool head and a sense of focus. In practice, there’s no room for empty hope or magical thinking, no matter how tempting it might be to imagine the problem will go away, or that you can wish a solution into place.
Better to find optimism through grounded, objective reasoning. Optimism, based on a meaningful course of action, is essential in leadership. It provides direction towards solutions, and focus for the team, as long as it’s restricted – bounded – by reality, while allowing for the strength, ability and creativity that solutions can depend on.
Ultimately, the skills in intuition, judgement, imagination, and emotional intelligence that are unique to people, and that are beyond the capability of artificial intelligence, are the fundamental attributes that can soothe change and restore stability.
Leading through change effectively is about empowering people within your team, creating leaders and encouraging them to help you develop the action that will carry you forward towards better times. It’s not about hierarchy or accountability, it’s about bringing people together to develop meaningful solutions from an empty sheet of paper.
The benefits of being prepared
Working Voices offers courses on each of these four themes, exploring strategies that lead to clearer focus and stability. By developing resilience, encouraging initiative and preparing for the unexpected, organisations can foster trust, morale and cohesion.
Preparation isn’t without its own challenges. After two years of dealing with upheaval, many leaders and teams are weary of advice on how to deal with upheaval. Chaos and uncertainty are draining. Leaders looking to restore a little zing may find that stability, focus and patience will help their team stay ready for whatever might come next.