Leaders are the most important factor in the success or failure of an organizational change. An effective change manager will almost certainly need to give leaders feedback from time to time. If you are afraid to shape the most important lever in creating successful change (or, in other words, if you are afraid to give leaders feedback), you are compromising the potential success of the change.
When leaders are not doing or saying the right things about your change, it is time for feedback –honest, direct, and fair. There are a few things to remember when giving leaders feedback.
First, it is important to keep in mind that leaders almost always want to be supportive of change, act as champions for change efforts, and guide people toward their vision. But they just don’t have time or they don’t know how! Getting specific can be really helpful.
Clarifying small yet powerful activities that leaders can and should be doing to demonstrate support for the change is always helpful. Think about creating a simple Leadership Involvement Plan or document that outlines what leaders can be doing and when. The kind of things that can be discussed with a leader and included in a Leadership Involvement Plan are ways to:
Get involved in the change – being visible so that they can lead by example; attending project meetings, process reviews, and workshops; hosting or kicking-off a project event; and making time to attend executive training.
Communicate about the change – identifying and telling people how the change strategy or vision guides their group’s work; following up to ensure their communication is understood; holding “brown bag” lunches with your team to surface and resolve concerns or issues.
Reward people for doing the right thing – encouraging people to get involved in project activities; rewarding involvement in the change with public recognition or thank yous; maintaining regular contact with full-time project team members.
Walk the talk – including change-related objectives in their personal goals and objectives; offering up resources and support to the project team; dealing with resistance head on; expecting a learning curve and productivity dip during changes to new processes and technologies.
Second, leaders are people before they are sponsors, champions, or business people so being compassionate and understanding is imperative if feedback is going to be well received. Just as we need to help people in the organization get ready, willing, and able to behave differently, we need to help leaders make that same transition to behave differently in their role as a sponsor. We can’t expect leaders to magically commit to a new set of ideas and behaviors before they themselves have fully thought through what it means for them, how they will be valued under the new environment, how supported they will be, and more.
We know that when people need to change the way they work, they try to reestablish understanding, support and purpose. Leaders experience change just like everyone else does.
When things change, people feel like we are thrown into a fun house and it takes a few minutes for us to learn how to walk and navigate on sloping floors and with floor to ceiling mirrors. Leaders experience this same disorientation and need for understanding.
People seek support when they are in the midst of uncertainty and change. Somehow, everything seems a little better when people feel like they are not all alone. Leaders are no different and need support. In fact, leaders tend to have an even greater challenge in finding support because they may have fewer or no peers, or they may be reluctant to reach out to others.
People also look to reestablish their purpose during times of change. They often feel like their old purpose is threatened or might become irrelevant when their surroundings are in flux. Purpose is especially relevant to leaders since people who have worked their way up a ladder tend to define themselves and their value as people in terms of their jobs more than others. They need to believe that they will be successful and they will be valued.
Next time you are involved in a change and it looks like leadership is not stepping into the role required of them, don’t be afraid to offer feedback. Leaders are people too. They are not perfect, and should be open to suggestions for how their actions can either help or hinder the change. Be specific, and be compassionate.