Leading change is extremely hard. It challenges the organization’s status quo, interrupts peoples’ assumptions and comfort zones, and creates an often uneasy unknown or unconfirmed future for the organization. Thus, obstacles and resistance to change are often consistent and come from many sources up, down, across, and even external to the organization. Leading change can easily feel overwhelming and unsuccessful at so many points through the process.
But leading change is inherent and essential to leadership. I think back to Jim Mattis’s comments in his book, Call Sign Chaos, claiming that a “leader must be willing to change and make change.” Leaders must get results for their organization and stakeholders absolutely, but I truly believe that alone is insufficient. Leaders must also make the organization and others better; organizational change is critical to effective leadership.
Early in my career I came across an anonymous quote that stated, “leaders are in the business of make-stuff-better.com. We come in, make the organization better, and move on.” Looking back, that simple quote has inspired a foundational passion of mine: to make people and organizations better. But until recently, I feel my organizational change efforts as a leader have always been whimsical – lacking direction, structure, purpose, and not being as deliberate as it should. But over the last three years, I’ve had the great fortune of receiving a formal graduate education on organizational psychology, development, and change, as well as the opportunity to formally lead change as a Tactical Officer of a Cadet company at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. As a Tactical Officer, I was the legal commander of the company, but primarily served as a teacher, advisor, coach, and leader developer to the Cadets and the Cadet chain of command. These last two years as a Tactical Officer (TAC) have been my first true opportunity to plan and lead intentional organizational change. I have learned so much about change from these recent experiences.
Preparing for Change: Activating the Levers of Change
Before we can even begin to introduce changes into our organization, leaders must be purposeful in planning and preparing for the change. We must earn trust across the organization, get people on board with the change, and set the conditions to ensure the change(s) we introduce become embedded into our culture and sustainable over time. Even John Kotter’s popular 8-step model for change spends the first three steps creating a climate for and preparing to implement change.
Through my recent experiences of leading change as a TAC, I found that preparing for and setting the conditions for change are critical. I also found that they take time; nearly my entire first year as a TAC was merely preparing for change by activating the “levers” I outline below. It is so easy for leaders to rush into change because we see the need and want to get results. But we must be thoughtful and deliberate in preparing our people for change first.
I learned that I turned to four main “levers” of change. These levers were not the organizational change themselves, but the mechanisms that enabled me to earn mutual trust and respect across the organization, encourage people to commit to the idea of coming change, and make change sustainable before actually triggering it. The levers were the mechanisms that enabled sustainable, acceptable, and effective change within our company. They were the necessary precursors to introducing change, which we activated one-by-one in the order I present them below.
Our four levers of change were leader energy and optimism, psychological safety, gratitude, and feedback across the team.
Leader Energy & Optimism
“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” –John Maxwell
If the leader is not committed to, clear on the purpose of, and excited about being a part of the organization, how can we expect anyone else to be? Leaders must set the tone for the team. I often assert that the most valuable thing I ever bring to a team may not be some specific skill or ability, but a high-level of energy and optimism to inspire the team. When you’re excited about the team and what you all are doing, others will also be in time; energy and optimism is contagious.
Like all things in leadership, we must start with ourselves before we work on others. This first lever of change is no different. Leaders must consistently role-model the attitude necessary to facilitate successful change. Focus on the key word of “consistently;” leaders must embody the necessary tone for the team even through the lows, the struggles, and when things are not going as planned. As famed football coach, Tom Landry, states, “leadership is having people look at you and gain confidence seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.”
To learn more on how to lead with high-energy and optimism, I encourage you to turn to:
- Leadership and the Need for Perpetual Optimism, 3×5 Leadership.
- It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, by Colin Powell. Of the lessons he highlights from life and leadership, #13 is “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
- Do All Things with Energy and Optimism, 3×5 Leadership.
- The Energy Comes from You, The Military Leader.
- 5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders, Forbes.
Trust is the currency of leadership; it’s also the highest form of human motivation. We cannot effectively lead our people without earned, mutual trust. But trust must be just that – earned. We cannot demand or expect it. Leaders can offer their trust first as an important first step, but ultimately, we must cultivate an environment of safety and vulnerability. Leaders must enable team members to feel safe within the team, to be willing to take risks, to be willing to speak truth (to power), and to be vulnerable within the team without feeling insecure or worried of consequences.
Leaders must create psychological safety on the team. It is critical to earning trust. It is also essential to fostering the climate that will accept and sustain change in the future. Through this safety, members feel more comfortable, even with the possible unknown future tied to change. This can lead to more honest feedback and assessment provided by team members to the leader through upcoming change enabling more successful change efforts. As we can see, so much of leadership and leading change is impacted by psychological safety within the team.
I encourage you to read more on psychological safety to learn about specific ways that leader can foster it within their teams. Some recommendations include:
- Do Your People Feel Safe? How Leaders Create Psychological Safety., 3×5 Leadership.
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle.
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown.
- High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It, Harvard Business Review.
- Simon Sinek’s TED Talk: Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.
This third lever to enable change is a soft, “squishy” one that is easily dismissed by leaders because it’s uncomfortable and too “emotional.” The truth is gratitude actioned within the organization creates feelings of belonging. It’s also a mechanism that encourages more engagement, both by leaders and members, across the team. To provide specific, relevant, and quality feedback, leaders must be engaged with what their people are doing to notice it. As Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton claim in their book, Leading with Gratitude, “gratitude provides clarity about whether the work they [team members] are doing is correct, valued by the boss or others, and making a significant contribution to the business.” Gratitude provides positive feedback, senses of belonging, increased engagement, and an understanding on how peoples’ efforts are contributing to the team’s purpose and results.
But gratitude felt does not equate to gratitude expressed. We can feel appreciation for others and their efforts on the tam, but if it’s not outright expressed in some way, that gratitude never benefits the other person or the organization. Leaders must show gratitude (role model) and integrate it as a habit within the team; while it will start from a top-down effort of leaders showing gratitude, it must transform into an inherent behavior that all team members enact routinely.
There are several effective ways that leaders can integrate gratitude into their team. A few great references to start with include:
- Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results, by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton.
- Never Underestimate the Power of Appreciation, 3×5 Leadership.
- Do You Communicate Appreciation & Admiration to the People You Lead?, 3×5 Leadership.
While the first three levers are all leadership behaviors that I am personally passionate about, none of them directly impact team performance. Amidst leader energy, psychological safety, and gratitude, teams need mechanisms for accountability to make them high performing. This is where feedback loops within the team are important.
I cannot think of any other way to improve ourselves as leaders or to improve our team’s performance. We can reflect forever on what we need to grow in our leadership, or our team can deliberate forever together on what we need to do to improve. But if we do not receive any sort of external or more objective feedback on our effectiveness and performance, we have no mark to measure our own assessments from.
The issue is that feedback is a hard artform. It can be so subjective and there can be so many factors that contribute to making it effective or not. We require some education on it, to practice it, and be methodical in how we deliver and receive it. But once we establish high-quality, relevant, and timely feedback loops that run up, down, and across the team, mutual accountability becomes an ingrained behavior and basic expectation on how we do business.
While feedback is a complex topic, it is a critical one that leaders must explore and learn more on. I highly encourage leaders to invest time on this topic. Some helpful initial resources include:
- The Feedback Primer, 3×5 Leadership. Link is to part 1 of a six-part series about organizational feedback loops.
- Books such as Radical Candor, by Kim Scott; Insight, by Tasha Eurich; The Fearless Organization, by Amy Edmondson.
- Coaching for Leaders podcast that address the topic, like episodes 143 and 442.
Again, these four levers served as the triggers that I activated to prepare for change within my organization. I pulled each lever one-by-one in the order I presented them above over the span of almost a year. These levers fostered a climate within the company that enabled members to offer their trust, feel safe, feel valued, have stake in the team by holding one another accountable. Ultimately, these levers led team members to be more open to and accepting of organizational change. Through these levers, we:
- Had team members become more committed to the team and to change, over merely complying. They took ownership in making our team better.
- Held one another more accountable. While feedback and performance accountability started from the top with me, in time, the sense of ownership and accountability permeated across the team from member to member.
- Experienced tangible team performance improvement. While I don’t think reporting our company’s improved performance metrics increases the validity of the argument, it is worth noting that members took pride in our team’s results and desire to continue to improve them. We saw drastic performance growth over the 2-years across all four primary “pillars” of Cadet performance and assessment.
I hope by sharing this reflection from my experiences the last two years, you can find how you can adapt and apply these levers to your own team to predicate important, sustainable change. Remember, as leaders we are called to make our organization and people better. I think these four levers to change can help initiate that for you.
The thoughts offered within this post are my personal opinions only and do not reflect that of the United States Military Academy or U.S. Army.
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