Change starts with a challenge -- when someone or something challenges the status quo. The fun really starts when the challenge is accepted.
In organizations, the most senior leaders are the ones who first accept the challenge. That decision is communicated to lower-level leaders (both formal and informal leaders) who lead the work at the ground level. In bigger organizations, we "cascade" the messages from leader to leader and group to group, targeting the messages to what we think is most pertinent to each audience. We show them data, explain the rationale, and try to display conviction in the decision. In fact, standing in front of a group and communicating the decision helps solidify the decision.
What we underestimate, though, is the commitment needed to make change happen. That one decision -- that choice to accept the challenge and work for change -- isn't made just once. Success requires that decision is made every day thereafter. Every leader in the organization has to make that decision every day -- the same one that was made for them and communicated to them.
That's harder than it sounds.
I started my 6-day a week workouts back in January. I accepted a 10-week challenge, but made the commitment to myself to stay consistent for one year. Every day, no kidding, I decide whether to keep going. Some days that decision is tougher than others. I'm human; I waiver. Personal change happens one day at a time, whether you're talking about giving up a bad habit or starting a new positive one.
Organizational change is the same, except it involves more people making the same decision day in and day out. When leaders waiver, even just once, it can create doubt about the whole thing. And doubt has a way of lingering.
Doubt is a favorite tool of the ego. When we operate out of our comfort zone, we naturally look for ways to bring ourselves back into our comfort zone. Our brains are trained to look for evidence that we should stay the same, that the change is bad for us. We don't need help to create doubt; we are highly gifted at doing it for ourselves. So when leaders express doubt, verbally or in their body language, doubt is confirmed, multiplied. And we all know how negativity travels faster than good news ever could. Before you know it, there's a rumor that the entire initiative is in question -- or in jeopardy. Resistance behaviors increase. Results slow.
Recovery is possible. A leader can own up to their doubt and show renewed commitment to the change. Assuming the leader has the trust and commitment of their team, the team members will follow. But you can falter only so many times. One too many and there's no going back.
Which brings us to the storming phase.
I wrote about the storming phase of Tuckman's model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) in last week's post -- specifically, the damage that can be done if teams are left to themselves to work everything out. When we talk about teams in the storming phase, our minds naturally fix on the team members. But leaders storm, too.
And it's worth noting, we are all more transparent than we think we are. We are constantly communicating through subtle facial cues and body language. Speaking your commitment to change is easy; embodying your commitment is a bigger challenge. Why? It's harder to fake. Because it's harder to fake, we count on energy and body language to tell the real story. When words, energy, and body language don't match, we feel and react to the discrepancies.
Putting it all together, then: Change starts with a challenge, and the choice to accept the challenge. That same choice, to accept the challenge, is a daily choice. That choice gets harder to make the deeper you get into the storming phase. The storming phase is part of personal change, as well as organizational change, impacting individuals and teams. It's not just team members who storm. Leaders storm, too.
Which means, like all team members, leaders need support through the storm. And this is where it gets tricky. Leaders are looked upon differently -- like they should already know all this and how to handle it. There is an imaginary but respected boundary along department lines -- an unofficial, unstated agreement to "stay in your own lane" unless asked to intercede.
This is why I contend that organizations going through change need an open-lane policy when it comes to leaders and the storming phase. When you're in the middle of the drama, it's harder to see the signs. If a leader is storming along with his or her team, that makes it more complicated. I've seen some 'unbecoming' behavior from leaders who join their team in the storm, questioning the character of other leaders, challenging the decision for change, etc. This is one reason why emotional intelligence is a quality we look for in leaders. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are less likely to get caught up in the drama themselves -- or, at least not for very long. If they do engage in behaviors that create doubt, they'll be the best able to recover -- as long as they don't go too far.
An open-lane policy means any leader can point out the signs of storming for any other leader without fear. It's not considered intruding; instead, it's expected -- a normal thing to do. I believe this is the kind of support that brings leaders together. When you help others keep their commitments to themselves and others -- to make that choice for change every day -- that's what it means to be a team player and support your teammates. After that, it's up to them. You can't control what other people do or say, but you can try to help them make the best decision for themselves and the team.
When you are a leader, and the challenge of change is accepted -- by choice or by proxy -- it's your job to lead by example, and to choose change every day. Days when that choice is hard, it's on you to reach out for help. Days when that choice is hard for other leaders, it's your time to help them. And when teams storm, every leader can play a part in leading a team -- and their leader -- through it.
Done well, the storming phase brings a team together. Storming can bring leaders together, as well -- or it can tear them apart. When leaders in an organization band together in their commitment to a change, and together they embrace the storm, they become a powerful force for good in the organization. I've seen it. Those are fun teams to work with -- and to be part of.