Great amounts of change in organizations, such as downsizing, reengineering, restructuring and reorganization, have occurred in recent years. These changes bring about anxiety for employees, although over the years they have become as comfortable as possible with these changes and their anxieties. Change is very much a part of our everyday lives; therefore, change leadership needs to be part of any leader’s essential skills. The ability to manage a successful change initiative stems from the leader’s personal ability to handle change. In an effective leader, personal experience is the best foundation for any attempt to lead others through change. The manner in which leaders handle change within themselves will shape how they handle change in their leadership role and therefore in their employees. Since the number of changes will only increase leaders must prepare their followers and organizations to adapt to the new economic environment This paper seeks to identify the characteristics of leaders who initiate, guide, and provoke change.
IN TIMES OF CHANGE
The most important factor for leaders to consider in times of change for an organization is that they must deal with cultural (norms) and behavioral (emotions) obstacles to change. They must also consider Schein’s (2004) three key features of organizational life: the firm’s culture (basic assumptions, values and artifacts), the leadership of the change effort, and the existing network of power. Leaders must identify and understand the current culture in order to bring about any real change. Rather than trying to change the culture which may take years, the leadership should work with and through the current culture to transform the organization. The first step is that they need to foster what Kotter (1996) advises as a sense of urgency within the organization. Kotter states that “a higher rate of urgency does not imply ever present panic, anxiety, or fear; it means a state in which complacency is virtually absent” (p. 43). Once a sense of urgency is established, Kotter continues with the thought that only the leadership can blast through the resistance with motivation actions and alter the culture and behaviors with support from every level within the organization. Andrews et al (2008) argue that assumptions and practice norms can thwart the conception, adoption, and implementation of critical actions such as change because the problems of implementing change reflect long-standing distinctive organizational cultures.
Useem (2009), Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, on the other hand argues that a key criterion for leadership is boldness in taking on the most challenging problems. Being pragmatic is another example of an important leadership trait. The possibility of being able to acquire and use these characteristics represents a positive perspective for organizations, employees and leaders alike. Leaders who lead and guide employees in organizational changes take risks but not carelessly or without planning. Furthermore, they encourage others to be risk takers by providing an environment that makes it safe for employees reluctant to change. Being an effective communicator and listener are also key components to being a proactive, risks taking leader who can manage a change leadership initiative.
We see this type of leadership in Fritz Henderson at General Motors. Effective leaders are proactive and confront rather than avoid, anticipate rather than react to situations and circumstances in their industries. GM has had to take a long look internally at the barriers to success and its emergence from bankruptcy. In the October 19, 2009, Workforce Management Journal, Henderson admits to a complete overhaul of General Motors, especially a cultural change in order to sustain the organization for an additional 100 years. This proactive cultural change initiative includes risk-taking, accountability, speed of decision making and customer and product focus. Henderson believes that a leader’s values have an impact on employee successes; he and his leadership team share the belief that employee learning, mentoring and coaching are of primary importance. This common ground appears to facilitate the development of a new clear and compelling vision for GM.
Schein and Kotter, as quoted by Flatt and Kowalczyk (2009) reveal that individuals within an organization such as GM share a common value. The common value is an advantage that Henderson (2009) can use to demonstrate the characteristic of valuing human resources; this manifests in three dimensions: valuing the contributions and efforts of co-workers, relating effectively with others, and fostering collaboration. This characteristic of effective leaders of change connects with a leader’s ability to listen, evaluate and communicate with employees. Henderson’s communicating and listening skills are the basis for his ability to articulate a vision, develop a shared mission, and express the belief that the human capital in GM is valued.
EMPLOYEE ANXIETY AND RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Contemporary leadership as mentioned by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management (2009) includes individuals who are prepared to lead multinational organizations in today’s economic environment with diverse workforces, and a demand for high performance which make it imperative for organizations to become more flexible, results-oriented, and have faster decision-making processes. Organizations are finding that leaders must be capable of not only understand the environment, but also the level of anxiety and resistance to employees brought about by change.
Resistance can build because of poor communication which fails to legitimize the change, misrepresents the chances of success and fails to call people to action. Leaders need to be able to adapt their leadership style to the level of resistance within their organization when it comes to organizational changes. Dover in his article in April 16, 2007’s Managing Organizational and Social Change states that researchers argue that resistance is a convenient label, something which change agents or leaders can use to make sense of reactions to their initiatives, absolving them of their responsibilities if the project fails. Dover concludes, however, that the danger is that this label can divert attention away from the change initiative, even contributing to the level of resistance by failing to recognize that change often breaks an understood and expected pattern of cooperation.
COMMUNICATION IN CHANGE INITIATIVES
Chris Argyris (1993) in his book Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change in chapter 2 outlines the steps for leaders to facilitate change within an organization:
(1) Interview and observe the players,
(2) Organize the findings for learning and action,
(3) Conduct meaningful feedback sessions,
(4) Facilitate the change seminar with live cases, and
(5) Manage the clash of expectations and needs to build new team leadership, getting feedback from below, and discussing and correcting out-of-control routines
The steps laid out by Argyris (1993) account for communication as a last step because “people under stress, that is, those who feel threatened or put at risk by some force beyond their control, experience ‘mental noise’ that can cause them to lose up to 80 percent of their ability to process information” states Wojtecki & Peters, 2000, p. 3). The level of anxiety associated with change makes it necessary to have a plan and a strategy in place prior to communicating the actions to the organization. Leaders need to filter the communication to disseminate the right information to the right people at the right time. Thus, Miller and Monge (1986) suggest that information or too much information prior to a strong change plan can assure resistance from employees.
Markus Amanto (2009) in his change leadership model website discusses the Sense of Coherence model (SOC) by Aaron Antonovsky. SOC deals with the manner in which employees handle change. The higher and stronger the level of an individual’s Sense of Coherence, the better the individual’s ability to cope with change. SOC consists of three different parts: meaningfulness, manageability and comprehensiveness.
1. Meaningfulness – The degree the individual finds a meaning in what is happening.
2. Comprehensiveness – Can I understand what is going on? Am I getting the kind of information I need to understand what is happening? And is it delivered in such a way to fit my preference of communication?
3. Manageability – Do I feel I have the tools, internal and external, do deal with the change? Do I feel I have access to the resources needed?
MANAGING FACTORS FOR CHANGE TO OCCUR
As leaders begin to think of what changes their people and organizations need, they must be aware of the factors that require managing in order for change to occur. According to Glaser (2004), leaders’ biggest challenge is leading the change. Hence, in order for leaders to succeed in the form of loyalty, respect and engagement from employees, they have to reshape themselves first, then their organization. Leaders need to acclimatize their employees slowly to the new change environment instead of leading with the same old autocratic style and expect change to succeed. In the words of Glaser (2004), groups have the potential for mistrust, doubt, and animosity; effective leadership would engage employees by developing behaviors that recognize, guide, and work through change anxiety in order to maximize the potential for acceptance, regardless of roles and titles.
Leaders need to be able to recognize shifts in the environment and steer their organization to take the initiative rather than be responsive to those changes. They are aware of the realities of their environment and thus guide the organization to rethink the vision and mission to coincide with the new realities. Henderson (2009) has taken the initiative to change the focus of General Motors away from maintaining the status quo to exploring various options by asking his leadership team to assess the present, identify gaps and determine a course of action.
Being a good listener is one of the foremost skills of a leader, especially when dealing with change. The ability to understand different individuals’ needs, to make them feel both seen and heard is also critical. Keeping employees informed of factors that affect not only their positions but also their lives is essential during a time of high anxiety and uncertainty. Successful change leadership begins prior to the time it is put into effect; by building trust and respectful relationships with employees, leaders are much more able to manage change initiatives with those they lead.