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The road is littered with failed transformation programmes that were set up in the traditional way: Leaders define objectives, design a project plan, agree on KPIs, and recruit the right people. As many executives, academics, and consultants can relate to, the rate of failure in transformations is still far too high, and one that organisations can ill afford in these disruptive times.
In order for transformation to be successful, leaders must approach it in ways designed to mitigate emotional harm to — and drive emotional commitment from — employees.
What makes transformations successful — and unsuccessful
In general, leaders and workers started transformations at the same point emotionally: excited and optimistic. As the transformations got going, they all showed a reduction in positive emotions and an increase in negative emotions. All transformations are tough, and confidence is bound to dip. This is not only inevitable, it’s key to the transformation’s success: Heightened stress raises performance (up to a point), and leaders who learn from their emotions bring those lessons into the transformation. This maintains a zone of high performance, which is an accelerator for a transformation.
For emotions to be accelerators rather than inhibitors of transformation, leaders must put conditions in place in advance so that the transformation can come through this “pressure zone.” They must create psychological safety and construct mechanisms for all voices to be heard. And as the pressure increases, support, such as listening sessions and employee coaching, needs to increase along with it.
Without that corresponding increase in psychological safety and support, transformations spiral downward. The workforce is left feeling anxious and overworked. People lose faith in transformation when there’s no compelling vision, no visible progress, and no practical and emotional support from leaders. When key stakeholders and the leaders themselves lose faith in the transformation, they may start to distance themselves from it, looking to reduce damage to their own brands and jumping to different activities.
Seven steps for a successful transformation
The workforce bears the brunt of failed transformations, and the emotional damage can be substantial as employees lose confidence in leaders and become skeptical of further attempts at transformation.
Drawn from our experience, here are seven ways for leaders to set their transformations up for success by prioritising their employees’— and their own — emotions.
1. Address the unsustainable status quo
The first step in any transformation is recognising that the status quo is unsustainable. This takes courage and an ability to hold and facilitate the emotionally uncomfortable conversations that lead you to accept the delta between where you are today and where you need to be tomorrow. It’s about working on yourself first by becoming aware of what mindsets and assumptions underpin your view of success and beginning a transformational emotional journey.
Understanding the unsustainable status quo can mean putting yourself as a leader in a different place, often physically, in order to see yourself, your company, and the part of the world you operate in and impact differently.
2. Detach from the status quo
The next step is to consciously detach from the status quo. Embrace the unknown and adopt the humility required to challenge the mindsets and assumptions you have about your company and its current ways of working, as well as the industry and what constitutes success.
This step is about understanding your own ego’s need to be an expert and recognising the importance of being open to learning during this time of transformation. This is where the real work of leaning into the emotions of anxiety, fear, and excitement occurs as your identity and status moves to the backburner. You must view not knowing what the future might look like as a key capability, rather than a sign of personal weakness.
This means understanding the system in which you’re located (beyond direct competitors), how it’s changing, and what opportunities and risks are being created. This can be uncomfortable. Embrace this discomfort; don’t shy away from it.
This step also requires exposure to new ideas that will inform and structure the future of the industry you’re in and therefore your company.
3. Develop a purposeful vision
Embracing the unknown and adopting humility enables you to develop a purposeful vision because it allows you to see more clearly what needs to change and why. It allows you to understand why you exist, independent from the current mindsets and assumptions and the ways your company operates and creates value. You can then imagine how you might create value differently at a functional, product and service, or even entire business model level.
4. Lead emotional transformation
This step gets to the heart of our argument and is the key to leading the emotional journey of transformation. Transformation can be exciting and unsettling for employees at the same time. They may feel excitement about being part of a purposeful company but unsettled and anxious — for example, if they can’t see how their skills will be relevant.
Addressing these emotions is key. Bringing topics like anxiety and fear of the unknown as well as different ideas about what the organisation’s future looks like into formal conversations allows them to be worked through, instead of just festering and creating resentment.
Listening skills are just as important as a project plan in a leaders’ toolkit of skills. Here are some psychotherapy-based steps to improve your listening. We found that these are remarkably similar to what leaders of successful transformations reported doing:
5. Include both the rational and emotional
When executives begin a transformation, it’s not long before they reach for a project plan. More often than not, this focuses on a rational understanding of how long it will take to deliver key activities. These plans are often overly ambitious from a cost and time point of view, and our experience suggests that they miss the critical listening component, which slows down the transformation process.
Conduct listening exercises via one-on-ones, small groups, and digital interventions and workshops across the organisation that enable leaders and the workforce to understand their own purpose and values and how they integrate into the wider organisational purpose.
If you’re to integrate both the emotional and rational into your plans, you need to think of the process as a corkscrew rather than a straight line — in other words, a core focus on progress but a non-linear way of getting there. This requires a different approach to project planning that integrates the rational and emotional processes and activities by bringing together the need for patience and pace.
6. Align KPIs, funding, resources, and people
This is where the benefits of focusing on the emotional journey should come to fruition. Successful transformation requires major shifts in KPIs and performance management, funding, and resources. This new reality can be difficult for some people, as their lack of belief in the transformation becomes real as they lose power, status, and even their roles in the transformed organisation. While losing people is more often than not an inevitable part of a successful transformation, our experience shows that making decisions about practical matters like KPIs sooner rather than later enables people to transition from one emotional state to another — from reacting to the loss of the status quo to being creative about the future. This is a critical inflection point in the emotional journey.
7. Make transformation the new normal
In the twentieth century, many organisations followed the model of being a “machine,” where predictability, stability, and hierarchy were the norm. This model was very good at delivering predictable performance but poor at coping with disruption. Many organisations still live with this legacy approach while their stakeholders demand something very different: a more “organic” organisation where continual transformational is the norm.
Enabling transformation requires giving employees the information and resources they need to develop and innovate in other directions.
Leaders are expected to deliver continual, rather than episodic, transformation and evolution. Transitioning to this state will not only require new leadership skills, organisational structures, processes, and KPIs — leaders need to bring all these things together to operate within this new paradigm.
Gestaldt Consultants, Partners and Thought Leaders.
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