This week the Comma Exchange heard from Marcus Powell, a former Ashridge HR/Organisational Development Consultant and now independent. Marcus has worked in a variety of businesses from Marks & Spencer to the health, wellness and fitness industry.  

Marcus led a conversation around the role of the leader as the authority and sense-maker in business change but reminded us it is the workforce and the individuals who decide and determine if change is successfully embedded. In the past, the hierarchical approach meant leadership could impose its will on the workforce but nowadays it is about collaboration and consultation.

Marcus started the conversation by stating that many change projects fail, irrespective of the money often thrown at them.  He asked Exchange members to relate their experiences before moving on to some of the theories behind these failures and how they might be overcome.

“Leaders don’t appreciate how long it takes to change.”

“They don’t get the buy in from those that it is going to affect.  When almost close to delivery – ready for launch – they bring internal communications in and say, ‘what are you going to do?’  It’s never going to be embedded that way.”

“Leaders don’t know how to do change – they are very process driven, results driven, they don’t really get how important it is to get buy in.”

“They don’t change their mindsets – the leaders – they still carry on with what they were doing before – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

“Leaders need to go through the change first and have enough time to process the change before they help to lead on it.”

“They see it as an FTE on a spreadsheet and a cost reduction but don’t appreciate the human impact – they have no empathy.”

“I think maybe we over-estimate the capacity of leaders to always know what to do when something fundamental changes.” 

“Even the people commissioning the change don’t understand it well enough, and especially don’t understand its impact on how people work.”

“In some cases the change itself has not taken account of the people at the front line who may have come up with a better solution themselves if they had been asked.”

“Most change is top-down.  Imagine what bottom-up might look like.”

“Most people who get into the change teams – they are so far away from the day jobs of those who work in the organisation that their understanding is incorrect or out of date, so what happens is you roll it out and those doing the jobs think ‘what are you talking about – this makes no sense at all.’”

It was clear from our Exchange members that communicators continue to be frustrated by how change is handled by leadership.  Anyone who has ever been part of a major change will feel their pain.

We then moved on to talk about some of the blockers to successful change and some theories behind them.

Anxiety – organisational and individual 

Marcus described a real paradox when dealing with organisational change. “Massive organisational change requires massive innovation and creativity.  But people need to feel safe to experiment.  If they do not feel safe, they will entrench, keep their heads down, do what they are doing now and avoid rocking the boat.

“To create this safe environment leaders must be careful not to infect their people with any anxieties of their own.  People need to feel safe to do things differently. Using terminology that creates anxiety does not help – burning platforms, imperatives ….”

Whenever you hear the words ‘change programme’ you will hear the word ‘resistors’, often seen as problematic and to be supressed.  As Marcus said, “the term ‘resistor’ is not helpful as it suggests conflict when in fact when you look at the theory of resistance it is usually associated with someone not agreeing with some aspect of what is being proposed.  Involving them early, allowing them to feel safe to speak up will often uncover helpful insights.  Far better this than having someone constantly sniping at the virtual coffee machine.”

Solving the wrong problem 

Marcus said the other classic thing about anxiety around change – the anxiety caused – is that leaders have chosen the wrong problem to solve.  Sometimes organisations end up trying to solve secondary problems rather than the BIG issue.  Marcus gave us the example of Kodak.  “Kodak had invested so much money in producing film manufacturing sites across the world they just tried harder to sell more films instead of tackling the exponential issue – that there was no longer a market for film. Often leaders have so much invested in keeping things the same they don’t address the big paradigm change that is taking place.”

Marcus referenced Paul Watzlawick’s book Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem as a good read on this topic.

Identifying dysfunctionality at the top 

Marcus shared with us the holographic principle of leadership – if you smash a hologram and pick up a fragment you will see a representation of the whole in the fragment, ie dysfunctionality at the board level will be reflected everywhere.  “Leaders need to step away from commentating on a problem and see themselves as part of it,” Marcus said.

Luxuries afforded to project change members should be afforded to others

“When people are invited to join change teams what tends to happen,” said Marcus, “is that those individuals get fed lots of information that others aren’t aware of.  This creates a sense of importance and power, of belonging to a sort of inner sanctum.  Given the luxury of time outside their normal job they have the time to think about what the changes mean to them, ie they get self-security.  The problem with this is that when they roll the changes out to others, they are expected to suddenly accept these changes without the time to work out how it will affect them.

“The one thing that is important out of this – the luxury you afford yourself about working out the implications for yourself, should be afforded to everyone in the organisation. This is where leaders are sense makers.”

Understanding people’s motivations 

As we’ve already seen from the experiences of our own Comma Exchange members, getting early buy in to a change programme is crucially important if it is to be successful.  Leadership needs to change their mindset on how this can be accomplished.  Long gone are the hierarchical days of “I said, you do”.  “Today ,” Marcus said, “people are more choiceful of where they work and want their own agency”.. Successful companies will understand this and take steps to corroborate.  

Marcus introduced us to some research from Cohen-Bradford (2005) which sheds further light on how individuals make sense of change.  Their premis is that if you are interested in trying to influence someone to do something for you, and you have no formal authority over that person, you need to understand their motivations so you can influence them.  Cohen-Bradford articulated five broad drivers which can work to influence someone to do something.  The trick is to understand for each individual what their motivator or motivators are.  Cohen-Bradford calls them currency exchanges: inspirational, position, task, relationship and personal.

The currency exchanges explained 

Inspirational currency: will appeal to people who are driven by an organisation’s vision, or by the opportunity to display their craft at its best or are driven by the organisation’s moral or ethical stance. The latter an increasingly important element to Gen Z. (is that what we are still on?)

Task currency: will appeal to those who are keen to just get a job done.  

Position currency: will appeal to those who want to enhance their position or visibility in the organisation.  Great candidates for co-opting to change projects!

Relationship currency: will appeal to those motivated by relationships, doing things for people because they like and respect them.

Personal currency: will appeal to those who appreciate being thanked – they don’t need the big picture – just to be appreciated.

“As in all models”, Marcus said, “you can pull it apart and add to it.  What’s interesting – when you are trying to lead teams is that you will have a dominant currency that fits you and you will assume that people are motivated to do things for the same reason as you.  Getting that it’s not that easy is a huge step – not just acknowledging it but acting on it.”

That’s where we had to wrap up.  I’m sure we could have continued much longer.

In summary, for internal communicators as trusted advisors and coaches, in preparing for your involvement in a change project:

  • Think about the language used in change projects – burning platforms, impediments.  Ask yourselves, are they contributing to raised anxiety levels? What else could be used?
  • Don’t forget in your advice to leaders – luxuries afforded to project change members should be afforded to others
  • The Cohn-Bradford model could be a useful model to discuss with leaders at the outset of any change project kick off.   Exploring just how well they know their people will make for an interesting conversation …
  • Have Paul Watzlawick’s book Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Solving in your back pocket if you ever think an organisation is barking up the wrong tree (tread with care!)
  • Remember Marcus’s holographic principle of leadership if you get push back from the Board 
  • Create communications in a way that includes something for everyone (with Cohn- Bradford’s model in mind).  Banish the broadcast for ever!

As Marcus says, “It is the workforce and the individuals in it who decide and determine if change is successfully embedded.” Let’s help them on their way.

For Comma Partners, please email virginia.hicks@commapartners.com or call 07900057725

Published: 14th May 2021