Make Change Stick

By Gary Bradt

It’s easy to talk about change but actually making change happen is not. How many times have we seen politicians from mayor to President run on a platform of change only to be stymied by the forces of the status quo once in office? In organizations, new leaders promising change arrive with great fanfare and panache. Speeches are made and initiatives begun, only to inevitably fade into impotent obscurity when those leaders move on and the status quo returns. At least until the next leader arrives touting the New Big Idea, when the cycle repeats.

In truth, driving sustainable change requires persistence, skill and hard work. Armed with a strategy and an understanding of what it takes to make change stick, you can be successful. Below are five things you need to know and do to lead sustainable change.

1. Address resistance before it occurs. It’s predictable: The people asking you to lead them through change will be the very ones who will fight and resist you every step of the way, so challenge them before you start. Ask them to predict where the strongest pockets of resistance will most likely lie, and what they’ll do to help you overcome those challenges. Let them know you’ll likely need to make unpopular decisions, whether it’s letting people go or shutting down a plant, or ending a legacy product or service. Gauge their reactions, and ask how they’ll specifically support you when resistance hits. If you don’t like or don’t trust the answers you hear, reconsider accepting the position, or at least go into it with your eyes wide open, knowing better the challenges that lie ahead.

2. Leaders don’t change organizations, people do. Your job isn’t to personally change anything, but rather to inspire those who can: the receptionist who greets your customers; the sales support staff who handles their complaints; the engineer who designs the products, and the salespeople who interact with the customers who use them; they are the true agents of change. It’s your job to show them why they should. You do this by continually sharing and reinforcing an uplifting message and vision of a future that’s worth waiting for, and worth fighting for. People will make ongoing sacrifices to effect sustainable change; if they can see the reward is worth the effort. It’s your primary job to make that connection for them.

3. Stay close to your friends. Stay closer to your enemies. Abraham Lincoln populated his cabinet with political enemies. He knew that it was easier to influence his detractors from close range than to deal with their potshots from afar. Similarly, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing the United States for war, he invited the input and participation of business leaders who loathed him and despised his policies. He knew that without their sacrifice and support, America could never produce the weapons and means necessary to defeat her enemies. Therefore, invite everyone to participate in the change process. Failing this, resistance generated by your strongest detractors will gradually erode any positive effects you may otherwise achieve.

4. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The old saying “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” is both cogent and wise. Even if circumstances are less than ideal, many people are slow to change for fear of the unknown. Just like the soreness that a first trip back to the gym will predictably produce, so too will change produce some doubts and discomfort at first. Therefore it’s important to normalize these feelings. Predicting they will occur will help people interpret them as a sign of progress when they do. Finally, reassure your followers that, just like muscles eventually adapt and get stronger in response to increased loads, so too will people gradually become stronger and more comfortable as they adapt to the newness of change.

5. Be honest, especially with yourself. It’s easy to articulate changes you’d like to see happen (personally losing ten pounds, say, or gaining ten percent market share on the professional side) but change comes at a price: it requires time, effort and often, sacrifice. Many change efforts fail because the leaders were never one hundred percent committed to them in the first place; or, if they were, they did not get others fully on board (per our first four points above). Therefore it’s vital that you truly believe in and want the change you’re about to lead. It can’t just be something that seems like a good idea, or worse, the latest trend everyone else is embracing. Begin by taking a look in the mirror: if you don’t passionately want to make this change happen, no one else will either.

A Final Word: Leading sustainable change requires leaders who care, followers who believe, and a commitment from both to persevere; for if your cause is great, so too the rewards.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Gary Bradt.

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