Coaching for Impactful Leadership of Change

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Sep 09, 2016

leadership of change

Researchers and change practitioners know that successful management of change requires more than a list of activities that form the basis of an overarching project plan. Yet, despite having a solid understanding of both theory and methods, the people most impacted by change frequently tell me that leaders and managers continue to miss the mark.

It doesn't seem to matter whether you follow Kotter, ADKAR, McKinsey 7s, SCARF or any other recognised framework... realising a return on change management investments is hard! Even where there is a sound vision, business benefits, leadership sponsorship and a disciplined approach to communications and training, time and time again I hear about less than optimal outcomes resulting from change management efforts.

This reminds me to think about the work of William Bridges who makes important distinctions between 'managing change' and 'managing transitions'. Whilst the tactical step-by-step change processes adopted by many practitioners are all important, it's the psychological reorientation that presents the greatest challenge. How do we help people let go of the past, navigate the uncomfortable neutral zone and come out the other side feeling positive? What can be done to genuinely attend to these emotional 'transitions' with effect?

If I park my understanding that individuals are inherently and biologically resistant to change, my mind keeps gravitating toward 2 other central themes that change managers need to reinforce and continuously strive to do better.

  • Organisations can be thought of as living systems. We require a deep understanding of its history, context and culture in order to get clarity on what we are really up against when implementing change. Cultures are extremely pervasive and resistant to change and we cannot underestimate the power of the unconscious assumptions and unwritten rules of behaviour.
  • We need to acknowledge that the leaders and managers are also experiencing the change and likely to feel apprehensive just like everyone else. How will this change impact my status and control? Do I have the skills to lead others through change? At a conscious level, people managers might espouse that they support and are modelling the change yet they can be unconsciously acting in ways that contradict and even undermine the change vision.

With change being the new constant, this is a timely reminder that the dynamic between leadership and culture is inextricably linked. As a result, it is simply not enough for change practitioners to say to the people leaders "here are the tools, now go, do and manage the change in your team".

How often do you see purposeful and meaningful change management coaching and learning beyond an introduction to the theory, strategy and principles? From what I can tell, there is an expectation of managers to lead others through change without first attending to their own needs. Sure, practitioners are often limited by what the client wants but if you ask me, helping managers with impactful approaches that guide them through their own transitions is a critical ingredient for successful outcomes.

On one of my more recent change projects, we started with a rigorous culture diagnostic of the organisation's readiness. I'm not talking about one of those pop change surveys... what I mean is deliberately unpacking and working through the cultural themes that foster or hinder the likelihood of successful change. We also created a safe space for managers to shine the light and reflect on their own biases, emotions and resistance. We practiced skills such as self-awareness, storytelling, listening, empathy, inquiry and strategies to build resilience.

By purposefully helping leaders along their own change journey, we are witnessing the formation of peer support networks and more authentic engagement with their teams. In turn, their people are feeling heard and connected with increased empathy and an appreciation of the shared experience. Very simply, by bringing the unconscious into consciousness and then naming and shifting the emotion, we're accelerating momentum so that people can more easily 'transition' through change.

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