People arrive at organizations enthusiastic, committed to the mission and open to adapting to the new position they were just hired for. That’s the excitement about coming into something new. They’re eager to learn and collaborate and become part of a team. But as time progresses and they settle into their roles, they also settle into their routines. While a few retain this openness to change, many do not. Sure, the joy of learning may still be there, but the openness to trying new things and changing bad or limiting behaviors lessens – and soon your supportive “cheerleaders” can become blocking resisters.
So what do we do as leaders? We need to speak to our employees with unprecedented candor, humility and vulnerability to get their emotional buy-in to change.
A new approach
The focus of culture change initiatives is often organization-wide, perhaps because they’re usually led by functions like HR or driven by the executive team, who feel that change needs to be broad and quick to deliver against the increasing demands of the key stakeholders involved. But this is exactly why most efforts fail. Fewer than 30% of change initiatives succeed in business today, and this has remained unchanged for nearly 20 years. I believe it’s time to narrow the scope and to focus on a behavioral approach.
Given constrained resources, and the difficulty of enacting behavior change, managers should focus on transforming a narrow set of practices among whichever small group provides the richest return against their strategic plan. In other words, pursue the highest-return behavior changes to accelerate the most critical business results. To do this, ask these questions: ”What are the pain points or emotional touchpoints that could rally the troops?” “How do you lead the change you know is needed?” “How do you inspire your people to take that leap?”
This can be done with the leader issuing a challenge and bringing up the need for change. It should have an element of choice for the workers, with a relatively short, measurable, emotionally rewarding goal. Leaders need to emotionally connect with their employees to become in tune with their needs and career goals, which helps tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation for change.
So how do you inspire this desire to change and create an openness to adopt new behaviors and practices? Use your own vulnerability to establish yourself as part of the team that needs to change. Put yourself on their level and in their shoes so they know it’s not just a directive from management; it’s a whole-team effort to lift each teammate to his or her potential.
Why? People don’t change for the company’s sake; they change for themselves and for those they care about. That’s why leaders need to gain empathy and emotional buy-in that leads to personal commitment by sharing their own emotional stake before focusing on what’s in it for each individual. They need to say: “I’m one of you. I feel your frustration. And I share your desire to do a more joyful job than the one you’ve been given.” Leaders must create empathy and celebration to open people to change.
Vulnerability in action
A few years back, I was giving a keynote at a major corporation that had been through several years of loss of market share, mismanagement, dysfunction and bloated bureaucracy. The new president knew the company couldn’t continue down that same path, but he also knew that under previous leadership other change initiatives had been implemented that only built up more resistance among workers. He had to find a way to wake up the organization and get the employees to trust him that the change he was presenting would be for the best. He knew he was in a tough place, especially as he stepped up to the microphone to address hundreds of the company’s salespeople.
Rather than rally them around how the change was for the good of the company, and their jobs, I coached him to open up about his own insecurities about how taking on this new, broader role was difficult for him coming from a more technical background. He said he was worried that he needed to change how he approached work and learn a new way to communicate to make himself a better manager and leader. He acknowledged that the change wasn’t going to be easy for any of them, including himself, but that he wanted them to join him because they were all in this together. That moment of candor spurred a movement within the organization, and the president was seen as more authentic and trustworthy. Employees across the company became more open to the change that was being presented.
By showing the humble, human, fallible sides of ourselves, we, as leaders, can tap into how our employees feel, thereby helping to ignite their sense of purpose and ensuring commitment to the process. Aligning your business purpose with your employees’ personal purposes is your best chance at succeeding in bringing about these new behaviors.
Change is not something you do to employees; it’s something you do with them. To work, it has to be a collaborative process. Organizations don’t change, people do. The success of culture change is the success of changing individual human behaviors.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. For more from Keith you can follow along on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.