As a change leader, you drive change in your organization. Everyone is watching, counting on measurable results. Mastery of the continuous improvement tools is important, but a change leader's job is more than tool implementation. Your success depends on your ability to engage, inspire, and influence people to learn and adapt today and every day -- to change how they think about themselves and the world.
The tools are straightforward, logical and predictable. Math is math. People are more of a mystery -- both unique and the same, variable and predictable. If culture change is the ultimate goal, understanding the human side of change is essential to success.
We are designed to resist. We are born into this world with a basic human operating system. From day one, we download information from everything and everyone around us. You know how we talk about kids being sponges when they are little? We absorb information straight into our subconscious. We don't choose; we input everything. People are highly programmed by 5-6 years old. From then on, we filter our experiences through our beliefs. Through a process of learning called "generalization," tasks that are similar get grouped and filed together. Experiences that feel similar are categorized and stored.
Our most basic instinct is survival, so we create a map of our world and a survival kit to match. The ego minds the map. The ego's main job is to keep us safe. To the ego, change is death. Its preference is for us to stay the same. The ego works hard at its job.
Since the brain doesn't know the difference between physical and emotional pain, when pain comes certain systems kick in. These systems cloud our thinking, leaving us with limited choices. You feel even more exposed, more vulnerable. The ego knows you and knows what buttons to push or strings to pull when you venture outside your comfort zone. It needs you to believe your bad feelings are real, and getting back to the status quo is the only remedy.
Even when you choose change, the ego kicks into resistance mode. For example, I have struggled with going to the gym for a long time. Years. Thinking about going to the gym raised my anxiety level to new heights. For me, the gym was the most judgmental place in the world. It turns out that feelings come from inside of us (not outside). I subconsciously (not on purpose) created feelings of extreme self-judgment and blamed the gym. I've recovered -- I've been working out 6 days a week for the last 8-10 weeks. As a result, the voice of self-judgement has quieted considerably. I am now a person who works out at 6 am, 6 days a week.
Our resistance kicks in even when the change is logical. I'll never forget the experience of implementing shadow boards on our manufacturing floor at the start of our 5S program. Employees chose where the boards would go, what tools would go where based on how often they were used -- every decision was theirs, right down to the paint color. They could see, logically, how a shadow board could help them be more efficient. Still, people didn't trust that tools would be available when they needed them. They kept extras hidden away, argued to keep specific tools off the board so other areas wouldn't take them, and even expressed concerns about job-security.
Because we are designed to resist, structure is essential for meaningful behavior change. We humans are creatures of habit. Habits are formed through consistent behavior. Structure puts limits on decision-making. With limited choices, we improve consistency.
When I joined the kick-boxing club in January, I committed to 6 am workouts every day. The gym has other class times, and if for any reason I can't make my 6 am class, I can show up for any of the other classes. And I have. That said, it didn't take long for the 5 am wake up and 6 am workout to become part of my regular routine. Before now, I resisted scheduling my workouts. I claimed I needed flexibility. I was wrong. What I needed was structure. If I wanted the change to stick, I needed structure.
Of course, we resist the structure, too. The shadow board example is a classic "structure resistance" case. Tenured workers complained, wondering why the new people we were hiring needed these boards. You see, they had been able to get along fine without them for years. We used an audit and reward system to reinforce the desired new behavior. Over time, the boards became "normal" -- no longer threatening -- and people stopped complaining about them. In time, they came to rely on them, and became accountable for them -- though regular audits will always be needed to sustain the behavior change even after years of using the boards.
We also want to be "done." Quickly. I once listened to an executive team argue for over an hour whether it should be called continuous improvement or continual improvement. The entire conversation was a great example of the ego at work. They settled on continual improvement, because to them it implied that you could consider an improvement project finished. Continual improvement allowed for stability between improvement cycles, essentially a legitimate way to take their foot off the change pedal for while (and give their egos a rest).
But character development is never done. It's helpful to think of character development like muscle building. If you don't use it, you lose it. Muscles atrophy without use. If they didn't, I'd still have the body I had as a senior in college when I was in the best shape of my life. Character is like that, too. To be part of your character, you have to practice a trait with relentless consistently. Saying I am a person who works out at 6 am, 6 days a week is not enough. I actually have to go to the gym AND do the workout. Similarly, claiming you are honest or ethical is not enough to make it part of your character. Character building is an ongoing process.
Goals are a common form of structure in organizations. The purpose of goals is to build character. SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistically High, Time bound) goals help bring out more of what is inside of you. As Derek Rydall, author of Emergence, states, "the content of your character determines your destiny."
Culture is the character of an organization. Culture change or transformation is an exercise in character building -- from top-down. An organization's culture is a reflection of the character of leaders. Leadership is cause; all else is effect. Leaders exist at all levels in an organization. Some are in roles with formal authority, others are not. The most effective leaders in your organization may or may not be the highest on the pay scale or longest in tenure. And an organization can be successful in spite of poor senior management if those who step up to lead are allowed the freedom to do so.
Best case scenario, those with formal authority are people of solid character who strive to be effective leaders, starting with self-leadership. When leaders seek self-leadership mastery, they inspire others to do the same. The possibilities are endless for an organization with a culture rooted in self-leadership.
If you want to be an effective change leader, seek to master self-leadership. If you review the table of contents for most leadership courses, they focus on self-awareness, but not necessarily self-leadership. Leadership development tends to be about how well you lead others, not how well you lead yourself. Self-leadership is not easy or automatic.
Self-leadership is about character. Whether change is planned or unplanned, scheduled or unscheduled, gaps in character are exposed during times of change. Character gaps show up in lots of ways. Blame is a common one -- like blaming others for your own performance issues or failure to keep commitments.
Self-leadership means constant assessment of character and shoring up gaps. It's not about perfection, but rather, relentless consistency. As Clay Scroggins writes in "How to Lead When You're Not in Charge," if you learn to lead yourself well, you will always have a good leader. He would say you must learn self-leadership before you can effectively lead others -- as in, put your own oxygen mask on first.
Recognizing, accepting and addressing character gaps is essential for sustaining both change and growth. When you can assess and address your own gaps in character, you improve your qualifications to help others do the same. Others in the organization will seek you out and ask you for help. When they ask for your help, they'll be more apt to follow through.
Self-leadership mastery is a personal journey. The best support I've found in my own self-leadership development is my coach. A coach provides a safe space -- free from the weight of a performance review or pay decision -- for honest self-assessment and targeted learning. You learn, do, learn some more -- then teach. As you develop self-leadership ability, you learn tools and techniques for supporting those who work with and for you. Understanding your own change resistance expands your ability to help others work through theirs.
Change happens from the inside out, starting with the decision to BE something different. Leading change well starts with leading yourself well. Decide to be the best leader you've ever had -- and then do the work to achieve it. Become a master goal-setter. Use goals to hone your skills and build your character. As you explore your own character and shore up gaps, you'll learn invaluable knowledge and skills to help and support others. As a master self-leader, you'll influence others in ways you can't predict. I promise, it will be incredibly rewarding.
Bottom line, the human side of change leadership is about you. Lead yourself first and others will follow.