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Why is change so hard?

Posted on by from Roffey Park

It’s not like we never change, it’s something we do almost daily. If there are road works on our way to work, we find an alternative route. If the supermarket moves where it puts our favourite items, we don’t just stand there waiting for them to put them back, we explore, ask around, or choose something different.

So why, when adapting to shifting circumstances in either a planned or an emergent way, does ‘change’ at work seem so difficult?

In organisations there are any number of things that might trip us up when we are leading a co-ordinated change. There may be the politics of agreeing what the problem is, let alone what the solutions might be or there is the challenge of co-ordinating and sustaining effort with people who are all still doing a day job too. There is also the challenge that the goal posts may keep changing as the external environment throws curve balls. And these three examples are just some of the obvious ones! 

What is often less obvious, is that by simply naming something as ‘a change’, creates a problem.

Why is change deemed as an issue?

It assumes that change is a ‘thing’, a project to be landed, something with a beginning, middle and an end. Even saying that we know change is constant (all other such phrases) still doesn’t get to the heart of what is going on. The complexity and ambiguity that is inherent in modern organisational life requires leaders to think differently, but also to build their capacity to cope with the discomfort of uncertainty, and to tolerate the discomfort of others with compassion and focused resolve. Not an easy combination. 

What we are talking about here is ‘Adaptive Leadership’ (Heiftz, 2001), which given the term was originally coined in 2001, isn’t a new idea. The basic premise is that most of the changes organisations struggle with are what Heiftz calls ‘Adaptive problems’, as opposed to ‘Technical problems’. However, most leaders keep focused on trying to find a technical solution (i.e. smarter, better, more adept application of the tools we already have) rather than an Adaptive one. In practice there are often adaptive and technical aspects to most changes, but confusing the two is at best unhelpful, at worst destructive. 

A typical example might help to illustrate this.

Many organisations have an eye on productivity and a lot of change efforts tend to be focused on streamlining systems, removing bureaucracy, incentivising performance and the like. These things may well help and of course should be tried, but the likelihood is that they will only get you so far. As a leader you have to take a wider perspective and see the patterns of behaviour that are getting in the way. If senior leaders are focused on productivity because there is a potential takeover or merger on the horizon, there may well be a huge tension in the workforce between being seen to be productive so bettering an individual’s chances of being retained in a merger, and not wanting the organisation to look too much like an attractive proposition because who knows if we’d keep our jobs anyway? 

In this type of scenario, a leader’s job is not about keep trying to increase productivity with ever greater technical innovations, but to influence senior colleagues to communicate more with staff about possible outcomes. They must listen to the fears and concerns of staff and coach them to stay focused and resilient, developing a compelling but realistic sense of direction and helping colleagues throughout the organisation feel that they can speak up and contribute to making any change a success.  

However, to really lead through change requires a shift in mind set and perspective that most managers and leaders never fully make… and for good reason, but that’s another story and I’ll explain it all in the next instalment.

Sue Binks

By Sue Binks

Roffey Park

Sue Binks is a senior consultant at Roffey Park leadership institute

Roffey Park

Roffey Park

Roffey Park is an internationally renowned leadership institute based in the UK and Singapore.

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