For a very long time I believed it is natural for people to resist change. With this in mind I would work very hard to get them on board with whatever it is I wanted to change. Through my work I have come to see people do not actually resist change. What I’m finding is when I sit down and talk to the people on teams it’s clear they see a need for doing things differently.

So why then does it appear the people are resisting change?

I’ll use a couple examples to illustrate. Lets assume for discussion these examples are the same team with the same challenges. The team creates product that is often problematic, frequently requiring rework and lots of support. There is no shortage of work and in fact the demand on this team is only increasing. Lately the manager has been feeling the pressure as their business partners are becoming increasingly impatient with the results from the team. Although no-one has said it the manager is starting to feel his job may be on the line if things don’t improve this year.

 Scenario 1 – this new approach will fix our problems

The manager decides the problem is in how the team is working together. He does some research to find different ways to solve the problems. He comes across a different methodology which talks about delivering faster, cheaper and better. It sounds like the perfect solution. So he takes this new methodology forward to the team, and tells them they’re going to be changing how they work given all the problems they create.

The manager then proceeds to tell his people how to use this different approach and how it’s going to solve their problems. He tells them how much he believes in this new approach, and he will be measuring their performance by how closely they follow his direction.

Scenario 2 – I need your help

This scenario starts out much the same with some research and findings. Where things start taking a turn is the leader starts by sitting down with the team to explore and form a shared understanding about their results as a team. In this the leader spends the time to help the team process the situation. With this shared understanding  then explains how it’s his belief they need to drastically change their approach to their team work in order to get ahead of this problem.

Although he has some ideas for where they could start, the leader confesses he doesn’t have all the answers and he needs their help. He goes on to explain how although he understands their work, they are the experts as they make it happen every day. Finally he asks for their support to work on this together and explains how he will be there to support them in this journey.

What’s the difference?

I am reminded of a few leaders who would think Scenario 2 is doomed to fail as it lacks strong leadership. For them leadership is about having all the right answers and telling the teams what will make them better. My experience says it’s actually Scenario 1 that’s doomed to fail and there are plenty of case studies to prove it (some of which are mine). Let me explain …

In scenario 1 the leader is telling the team what to change. There is no vulnerability and no permission to work together on the problem. It’s been my experience in these cases the leader talks about what he wants the team doing different, but rarely (if ever) talks about the outcomes he’s hoping for. To work through it the leader has assessed the problems, passed judgement and found what he thinks is the solution and proceeds to install it within the team. I have seen leaders who make it clear the team is expected to follow this approach perfectly and cement the deal by telling the people their annual performance reviews are dependant on their compliance.

In scenario 2 the leader is approaching the team with a great deal of vulnerability. He transparently shares what is actually happening and the perception of others. He’s more likely to spend the time it takes to help his people understand and process what they’re hearing. Then with vulnerability he confesses he doesn’t have all the answers and asks for their support and permission to start working towards a better way of working together. A new way that will help them achieve the outcomes they’re looking for, rather than remaining stuck in this place. With their permission he may bring forward a new approach, however in this case it’s with the mind set that it’s a starting point rather than the perfect answer.

Leading for Change

When a leader tries to fix teams by installing a new process, the team is most likely to be put into a state of obligation. In this state of obligation they will likely comply with the Leader’s next big idea. However, the attitude I frequently see from the team is one of “let’s go through the motions and this too will pass”. How much ownership do you think they will hold for making this new thing work? That’s right … not much (if any). They will be checked out just trying to keep their heads above water while humouring their boss’s next great idea.

I assume when seeking to improve a team’s work everyone involved wants their efforts to result in a team culture change. In other words, the changed environment becomes the new normal with regards to how we work. You will not achieve this when approaching change like the manager in scenario 1.

The difference

The most sustainable approach to leading change is when the leader promotes a culture of Responsibility (see The Responsibility Process®). In this culture teams experience far more ownership for the challenges, problems and finding successful outcomes. It is also a safe place to take risks and stretch themselves to the point of failure on occasion. However, as in the scenarios trying new things and stretching is what will create the changes needed.

In scenario 1 the manager most likely put the team in a mindset of Obligation. When in a state of obligation we’re doing something because you’re left feeling powerless and without choice. You feel you have no choice except to comply. This doesn’t make you bad … this only makes you human. Staying in obligation can be stressful so we humans have a protection mechanism known as quit. In quit we check out, may go through the motions but really hold no ownership for a good outcome.

In sharing with such vulnerability in scenario 2 the manager has a better chance of setting the team up to act with responsibility. It would be too easy to blame other teams for their problems, or justify their problems based on being overworked. Rather than spending time in these mindsets they have the opportunity to get really clear on their challenges. With this clarity they will be able to act from responsibility to design a better outcome.

Stop trying to fix them

As always there is no promises and no silver bullets. However, what I know to be true is when managers try to fix their team they rarely get the outcomes they’re after.

Perhaps it’s time to take a different approach by Leading for Change


“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” — Albert Einstein
Building Great Teams

Building Great Teams

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