Do you know how to inspire change?
Have you ever been so frustrated with your work environment that you want to run away, never to come back again? Have you ever felt desperately hopeless, not knowing how to motivate your people or make your manager listen to you? Or have you ever felt powerless to inspire change? Does it feel like the size of the Titanic, overwhelmed and outnumbered, in your attempt to improve your working conditions and results?
The sad truth is, from personal experience in any case, that if you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re far from alone. Rather, I would risk saying that you are in a very average organization. Chances are that the majority of the people and workplaces you interact with will feel very similar.
It’s like a constant tug of war between employer and employee. The employee feels frustrated that the workplace doesn’t change, and the employer feels frustrated that the employees don’t change. Everyone waits for someone, or something else to change, resulting in no change at all.
We rather choose the road more travelled, the typical keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ syndrome, out of fear of embarking on something new and unknown. Also, we follow the buzzwords and do things the way it’s always been done, rather than exploring unknown territory. We are so afraid that we might end up in a dead-end and have to turn around, even though on the other hand, we might discover a valuable treasure. Our inborn negativity bias makes us choose known over unknown whenever there is the slightest risk of failure.
Yet, the most beautiful view always emerges after the hardest climb. And did Columbus not explore unknown territory, the world as we know it would be a very different place. In order to succeed, you need to embrace and inspire change. Don’t wait for someone else to change. Rather, be the change you want to see in your workplace.
Five ways to inspire change in your workplace
1. Change must be a choice
You can’t tell someone to be inspired, so don’t try to tell someone to change. No change forced on someone will result in sustained change. To use the brilliant metaphor by Rick Hanson, forced change is like Teflon – nothing sticks – while voluntary change is like velcro. For change to stick, it has to be voluntary.
If you believe you don’t have the time to get buy-in, think again. The reason why people fall back into old habits the moment that there is a crisis is that it gives them permission to break the rules, allowing them to do things the way they feel comfortable with and prefer, not the rules imposed on them by management.
Taking the time to allow people to choose the change might postpone the change for a while, yet it will probably result in a successful and sustainable change in the end. Forcing change on someone because there is no time, will most certainly result in the transformation failing. Not only have you wasted a lot of time, but you also don’t have any results to show for it. So do you really not have the time?
2. Demonstrate quick wins
One of the most valuable things I learned as a consultant was to identify and implement quick wins immediately. As consultants usually come with a much higher price tag than full-time employees, they are expected to show value for money when inspiring change immediately.
When someone is not aware of the need to change, try to find one small, actionable thing that will immediately show an improvement. Demonstrating quick wins are like giving a sample of a product. Either they will see the value and want more, or decide that it is not for them. Yet, even though they decide not to embark on a journey of change immediately, your quick win has planted a seed which will surely germinate and grow into a plant sooner or later Listen to the complaints, and address the biggest pain point without asking for any resources or incentives.
To demonstrate what I mean, I recently had the opportunity to spend time at a design and print company. The owner complained about the constant, and often unnecessary, interruptions, keeping her from doing what she’s good at, namely the creative side of things. On top of that, her workload seemed extremely high yet she didn’t know what to do about it. The helpers she employed, on the other hand, seemed to do nothing for large parts of the day.
After further investigation, I realized her management style was the main cause of both problems – an easy problem to solve. I immediately implemented a simple Scrum board which stopped the interruptions by having two daily stand-ups to discuss any issues, alleviating her biggest pain point. The following week, on a quiet day, I facilitated a training session to allow the under-utilized employees to do the printing. It left her much happier, able to focus on the creative side while filling up the other employee’s day and learning a much-desired new skill which they.
Neither required any additional resources or investments while giving immediate relief for the most painful problem. It also proved valuable enough to her to commit on embarking on a coaching program with me.
3. Adapt your style to inspire change
Having spent a year in Thailand teaching English, I’ve had to find ways to get my lessons across without speaking Thai. I quickly realized that tried and tested methods that worked in the western culture had no value in the Thai culture. I had to change my teaching style.
What I, for example, considered to be a world-famous people, places or things in order to explain concepts, they have never heard of. To make it worse, their language doesn’t seem to have any similarities to English. There are no tenses in Thai, no punctuation, no distinction between sentences and paragraphs, and the sounds are totally different, with concepts such as word stress unknown to them.
Determined to succeed, however, I experimented with ways to leverage on learning methods they are familiar with, like remembering and repeating facts and finding fields of interest that would spark their interest by giving them projects where they could choose the object of the discussion. When the student doesn’t understand, it’s the teacher’s fault.
Suddenly I found that my students not only keen to come to class, but their progress was extraordinary. I taught the same skills, but I changed my style.
Similarly, with organizational change, you can’t expect the employees to buy into the change program by speaking your language. You need to adapt your style to speak in a language that the recipient understands.
4. Push through the discomfort
When people stubbornly refuse to see the need for change, it often hurts the people and organization around them. Either because of fear or ego, they hold onto dysfunctional situations, causing more harm each day they refuse to change. To make a stubborn leader aware of a need to change, direct confrontation might be required, pushing through the discomfort that follows with compassion. Sometimes you have to open the wound in order to remove the splinter.
To get the other person to see your point, you have to honestly say what you think and feel, even though it might hurt the other person. When they get angry or want to walk away, keep going. Push through. Don’t stop!
Denial is usually followed by anger. Anger always covers a deep hurt, with people feeling humiliated, embarrassed, vulnerable, exposed. Treat them with the necessary kindness and compassion, and finally, attempt to find a resolution.
5. Walk away
Sometimes people will not allow you to push through the discomfort, and the best thing you can do in this case is to walk away.
Either both they and you will be relieved from the discomfort that a change agent demands or they will realize the need for change and finally see your value. You don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it.
Most people don’t realize what they have until it’s gone. By walking away you give the company the opportunity to see your true worth. If they really value you, they will ask for you to come back and in so commit to change. If they don’t, you will be much happier in a more nurturing work environment where you feel more valued.
Don’t hold onto a dysfunctional environment. They might not be ready for the change you propose, or they might not think it is needed. Either, or, change has to be voluntary.
Being an inspiring leader who inspires change in the workplace is not a special gift you are born with, it is a skill like any that you can learn.
Change starts with an awareness that there is a need to change. It requires courage to explore the unknown and be vulnerable. Inspiring sustainable change requires voluntary buy-in into the change program and a strong leader who will be able to push through the fears.
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With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.