Leadership, in its simplest form, is rallying people to succeed at something difficult but important. If it is easy to accomplish, it doesn’t need a leader – just send an email to someone reliable and tick it off your list. If success isn’t essential or the job isn’t important, it’s a nice-to-have. Make it a stretch goal for a promising junior.
We need leadership to ensure that what matters gets done. Because effective leaders get their teams to focus on what is possible, prioritize what is essential, and commit to achievement. Leading change is bigger still because we aren’t simply asking our people to do things that are hard. High-performance teams do this all the time, just ask anyone who has coached or captained the journey to win the Super Bowl: the game is relatively unchanged, but the challenge is incredible.
Change initiatives require that the team succeeds in unfamiliar territory, needing skills and instincts that are different from the ones that have already made them great. It’s more stressful because people aren’t naturally equipped for quickly shifting conditions.
In the 1970s, Salvatore Maddi, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, looked at the coming breakup of the Illinois Bell Telephone monopoly as an opportunity to study how employees deal with massive organizational change over time. His research involved hundreds of executives, managers, and employees, beginning six years before the breakup, and following them for six years afterward (some had remained employed by the company after the breakup, and some had been laid off).
Drawing upon rich and varied data sources that ranged from interviews and observations to tracking various life events and physiological measurements like blood pressure, Maddi and his team detailed the impact on employees’ lives. For most, about two-thirds, the change initiated a negative cascade that included everything from poor performance reviews to substance abuse, marriage breakdowns, and serious health incidents (such as heart disease, cancers, and suicidal depression), all above the normal rates expected. These individuals longed for the period of change to be over and for a return to “the way things were.”
But one-third of the participants thrived, unrelated to their managers, regardless of whether they stayed employed at Bell or were one of the 50% who were laid off. These people avoided increased negative health events and grew their careers. Maddi’s pioneering research revealed the skills and perspectives used by those who approach change with a sense of possibility: commitment (to feel involved in events rather than isolated), control (the belief that one can influence outcomes), and challenge (an attitude that stressful events are opportunities for new learning). While Maddi’s work expanded into understanding and growing “hardiness” as a character trait, we can see the implications for leadership behavior.
It is a leader’s job to bridge the sense of the unknown and the known. Leaders have the power to change the context, both by their example and in how they communicate. They inspire by their actions and with a vision so real and compelling to the team that they need to see it completed: it’s a better world than the one they live in now, and the need for the journey is clear. Effective leaders foster a sense of belonging, of safety within the team, building the trust that transforms the fear and ambiguity of the unknown into the excitement of possibility, challenge, and performance.
In our change communication practice, we advise leaders to prioritize three things:
- Tell the story of opportunity. It is important to craft a clear vision of change – a view for a better tomorrow so tangible and meaningful to the team that they feel the destination is far preferable to “the way things are.” But it is critical to do so in a way that emotionally engages the employee as well as clarifies the benefit to the customer, to the organization, and to the community, and in a way that shows the opportunities for growth available to the employees themselves.
- Create a line of sight. Bring employees inside the change and inspire them with an understanding of the ways they contribute to making change successful. Reinforce the importance of their individual and team efforts, the actions they must prioritize, and the progress and challenges that are experienced along the way.
- Be visible. Modeling is a critical element of successful change. To build trust, it’s essential that your behavior precedes your words. For senior leaders, we must go beyond demonstrating the change and instead seek opportunities to be seen doing so, to have relationships with employees at all levels, and to create a sense of being on a journey together. In a hybrid workplace, many leaders will need to develop new skills for being visible to and interacting with their teams.
Effective leaders know that their change initiatives are only successful when employees feel that change is happening with them, not to them. Use communication to bring employees inside the change: connect them to the opportunity, clarify the ways they can have an impact, and reinforce their sense of inclusion in the team.