Prospero Consulting Group

Willingness to Change 

by Jeff Muscatine, Founder & Principal of Prospero Consulting Group

Not so many executives can make the unqualified statement that “people here are willing to change when new organizational strategies require it.” There is a very important truth here. From the individual and cultural perspectives - and in the workplace this is irrespective of organizational rank and role - it turns out that most people actually do not like change and having to learn new things. Notwithstanding the genuine power of popular business imperatives to cultivate passion, think out of the box, lead the revolution, and so on, there is also believable research that indicates that for most people change and learning are, at gut level, “hard things.”

Given the usual hierarchical nature of organizations and the constraints of time, it is not surprising that for many people the typical change program seems to happen to them, increasing their natural resistance, rather than engaging them in ways that tap into another powerful natural trait: adaptability. We tend to value comfort over discomfort. Yet while anxiety and doubt can cripple any initiative, preserving comfort is also at times a counter-productive barrier. Successful change often necessitates getting uncomfortable in order to do the needful, success coming only through acceptance of the stress and risk that may lead to the envisioned reward. There is a critical distinction between maintaining comfort while coming up short and the realistic acceptance of sacrifice and uncertainty in order to effect a valuable change. Along with leadership direction and cultural support, formal performance management must strike a deliberate balance in incentives for teams and individuals who are accountable for either of, or both, execution and innovation.

The perception of good organizational alignment of people with strategy, and processes with customer value, is a strong driver of the acceptance of change. The best reason for most “change management” teambuilding processes is not to obtain specific inputs or exercise democratic notions, but to develop a mutually-invested community that is ready to deal emotionally and philosophically with the discomfort of change. To foster this unification in the face of uncertainty is a principal role of the management team. Of course some people will always be quick to seek change of the status quo, and some will always oppose it. Aside from these psychological minorities, for most people in our organizations, example is more powerful than rhetoric, and their ability to see the logical alignment of changes can be a boon to their genuine engagement, comfortable or not.

Arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles, and the fear of risk amplified by uncertainty, undermine change just as it begins. It is not a question of charismatic leadership marshalling a corps of dependent followers. Management that is clear – not just emotionally persuasive – on direction, open about the stresses of change, keenly mindful of process interconnections, and that shows well-reasoned tolerance of uncertainties, will be seen as well attuned and trustworthy. This sense of management alignment encourages people to take initiative and develop solutions. Conformists resist change or finally follow blindly, not really able to take initiative or deal realistically with uncertainty. When uncertainty is inevitable, the exemplary leadership approach is to utilize change as a unifying factor.