The Role of Leaders in Leading Through Change | Gagen MacDonald

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The Role of Leaders in Leading Through Change

Feb 21, 2017

What kind of leader are you? It may be time to rethink your answer. In my previous post, Command-and-Control Leadership is Dead, we explored recent research, which strongly suggests that responsive leaders are much more effective at engaging employees than assertive leaders. Today’s leaders must adopt a receiver POV. It’s about listening first, modeling the right behaviors, and developing trust by supporting your people and following through on words with the right actions, every time.

Today’s post addresses how leaders can learn to lead effectively during times of change—because change is the new constant for any corporation today. When you consider what we at Gagen MacDonald call the Change Momentum CurveTM (pictured below), staying conscious of the cycle of change allows leaders to drive consistent, high-impact employee engagement.

This diagram traces the emotions and reactions employees and leaders typically experience when undergoing significant change. Leaders and their organizations often put a lot of focus, energy and effort into the beginning phases of change. We start strong with a big, splashy announcement; our goal as leaders is to fuel excitement and willingness to plunge into change. But when change starts to take root, introducing implications for the entire organization, that’s when change gets really hard for employees—and by then, change communications efforts have usually slacked off. The announcement party is over, the confetti still litters the floor, but leaders have moved on to the next big challenge.

But it’s exactly then—when change begins to manifest itself, with visible decisions and actions that lead to organizational implications—that leaders must provide critical interventions to inspire employees to commit to the future. It’s also important to stay mindful of where various stakeholders currently stand along the Change Momentum Curve, recognizing that leaders are generally further along than other stakeholders. The question for leaders is this: how can you quickly bring employees and other stakeholders along with you to shorten the cycle of change? Responsive leadership is all about meeting people where they actually are, not where we want them to be, and nuancing communication styles accordingly.

Keeping the Change Momentum Curve in mind, let’s consider four guidelines that we at Gagen MacDonald have found essential to successful change leadership.

Actions speak as loudly as words.

It’s not enough to say how you want employees and culture to change. Leaders must embody the change they wish to see, modeling the right behaviors to motivate change by employees. Using symbolic behaviors will reinforce your words and inspire individual acceptance of change.

Responsive leaders must act and present themselves in a responsive way—and social media offers an unprecedented opportunity to listen to and learn directly from employees. I can’t recommend enough this post on responsive leadership by Rita Linjuan Men, Assistant Professor of Public Relations at the University of Florida: Chief Engagement Officer: Effective CEO Communication Styles and Channels. Her research reveals that only 11 percent of CEOs her team surveyed use social media to connect with employees, yet “CEOs with stronger social media presence are perceived as being more approachable, responsive, and authentic” by their employees. She explains why: “Social media communication, which is relational, interactive and personal, fosters equal dialogues between CEOs and their employees, thus reducing the perceived power distance.” Blogging, hosting town halls and live online chats, and other social media convey responsive leadership powerfully, through actions as well as words.

Consistently articulate the vision, and connect successes along the way to the end result.

Leaders must passionately communicate impact and outcomes, connecting these wins as progress towards the ultimate goal. It’s not always clear to employees how certain developments contribute to the larger organization’s success. Short-term setbacks may actually indicate progress towards that goal. Only leaders have this broader view, and sharing that view with employees is essential. Leaders gain influence and trust by connecting decisions made and actions taken to the vision.

Cultivate individual acceptance and commitment to the vision through dialogue.

Encouraging open communication and feedback develops trust. Leaders face a challenge: to become responsive, they need to increase the amount they listen. But at large, global organizations, it can be daunting to imagine facing employee audiences without having all of the answers.

Listening may feel like a risky and complex endeavor. Leaders must continue to invest in listening tools like employee surveys, but also meet employees face-to-face. Power-leveling communications like social media and town halls enable direct dialogue between leaders and individual employees—and that’s incredibly persuasive.

Exercise influence by making information relevant and practical.

Tailoring communications and messages to questions and concerns employees actually have right now signals that leaders are paying close attention. Leaders who take a receiver-centric point of view demonstrate that they’re in tune with employees—their preferred communications channels, what they want to know versus what leaders want to tell them, what practical information will help them stay productive and engaged. This builds valuable influence over time.

If I can leave you with one final thought, it would be this quote from leadership guru John Eades (pulled from his LinkedIn post What Modern Leaders Definitely Get Right): “Leaders are NOT responsible for the results; they ARE responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.”

If you’re not focused on engaging and supporting your people to deliver outstanding results, you’re not leading. It’s that simple.

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