The #1 Killer of Change

I recently had a great catch up with my younger brother and youngest sister over a meal in their favorite local restaurant. Our conversation was free-ranging, covering a multiplicity of subjects.

However, a part of that conversation with my brother struck the deepest chords and prompted my thoughts in this post.

He works for a large national, not for profit organization in the UK, and it is mired in yet another major restructuring process, driven, as ever, by dwindling funding. The current process has been on-going for months.

My brother has worked for this organization for many years, and it appears to me that ‘change’ for this organization is an ever-present, as it strives to find the ‘best’ solution to delivering on its agenda. However, the current change process must be at least the fifth or sixth such process in about the past eight or so years.

Why so much change with so little apparent effect?

My interaction with my brother prompted my broader reflection on the fundamental issue why so much change has had so little impact, not just for his organization but many others I have worked with over the past forty years.

That issue has some typical outcomes. Senior managers follow, apparently slavishly,  structural change, without a clear vision to underpin it. They seem unclear about purpose. They rarely discuss or even agree on values. They ‘fix’ the structure when the previous model does not work. They do that relentlessly, without any pause for considered engagement. They lead from the top and do not listen to the workforce.

No doubt this resonates with readers.

So what is that profound issue, that killer component?

In my view, the #1 killer element is groupthink.

That phenomenon, first described by Jerry B Harvey in his article ‘The Abilene Paradox’, highlighted his views on consensus inertia. He believed, as I do, that groupthink erodes values; stifles critical thinking, limits creativity; enables undue influence of direction; and, allows inequity of action.

Moreover, I believe that when coupled with fear, of competition, of shareholder displeasure, of grasping nettles which need ripping from the otherwise fertile earth of an organization, of leading and managing properly rather than mediocrely, groupthink becomes an impossible burden for many senior managers.

Most commonly, readers will have experienced the impact of groupthink through a breakdown in group communication, especially when they would prefer to engage in a current change process.

I know, from direct personal experience, that one of the greatest challenges to any leader is ensuring that all members of their team apply critical and independent thinking to the challenges they face together and to feel the freedom to express their views without fear of condemnation or reprisal. However, that seems all too often not to happen.

So, how can your organization overcome this killer issue?

‘Groupthink’, coupled with the rapidly evolving pace of change and fear and uncertainty of purpose and direction, are undoubtedly significant contributory factors to poor business decisions.

Effective leaders overcome this problem by following four simple rules:

They communicate vision and values compellingly and inclusively.

Values should fit with the team’s communication, both internally and externally. Stop saying everyone counts, then marginalizing the majority through a ‘command and control’culture.

They revisit and refresh purpose and its underpinning values.

Ensure your team consensus is real, rather than imagined, by regularly reflecting on the values that underpin your declared purpose. They define appropriate standards of behavior for all team members and expose contrary action.

They confront dissonant activity.

Give immediate feedback, fairly but firmly, to team members not living out the vision and values of the team.

They periodically check out with feedback from partners.

Demonstrate personal courage, openness and show you are not risk averse! Regularly ask those involved with their team what they think of its values? Then act on that feedback.

What to do now?

Developing solid consensus in driving business decisions and in realizing ambitions and goals is critical to success and a harmonious working climate. However, within the ever-increasing noise and complexity of organizational life, it is so easy to lose sight of that outcome!

Avoid this by following the four simple rules outlined; articulating your vision and values; modeling your vision and values; inviting others to participate in your vision and values setting, and seeking feedback as to how well you practice what you preach!


This post was written by John Thurlbeck. A profile will follow soon.

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