The ART of Leading Organizational Change

Leading organizational change is often viewed as being about mobilizing others to actively engage in the process. Less often explored is how important a change leader’s own perceptions, habits of thought, and emotional responses are—the internal work of change leadership. When considering the willingness of others to do things differently, the fact that leaders themselves may resist change needs to be explored.

The three cornerstones for personal change that I introduced in the previous post—awareness, responsibility, and transformation (ART)—are just as relevant here because personal and organizational change are intertwined.

Image: © Bob Greene

Image: © Bob Greene

Organizations are complex systems and it is vital for leaders increase their awareness and pay attention to how they impact system dynamics. Early in our careers, a colleague and I were hired to help an organization where management complained about a variety of unproductive staff behaviors. We were quickly and unceremoniously dismissed, however, shortly after our first working session with the leadership team — it was clear that they were not willing to look at their roles or how they could improve as supervisors. In contrast, I’ve previously mentioned a leader who was open to seeing her own contribution to maintaining the dynamics she wanted to change in the system: she was surprised to learn that ongoing conflict among staff was inflamed, in part, by competition for her attention.

Another courageous leader recognized that her habitual defensive reactions impacted staff’s willingness to communicate openly with her. She took responsibility and worked on modeling the kind of communication she wanted to instill in the organization. For example, during an all-staff retreat, when I noticed her responding in a way that seemed to shut down conversation, I asked if she would be willing to engage with me right there in real-time coaching to discuss the dynamic. Her choice to do so demonstrated her willingness to consider her role — and this made a huge difference in encouraging others to be more forthcoming.

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Transformation takes ongoing effort, as it did for a leadership team intent on changing the culture of their organization (I discussed working with this team in a previous post). Because it can be a long journey, it’s vital to pay attention to signs of progress along the way. For example, this leadership team broke through an important barrier when they started to open up about misunderstandings and negative assumptions they were holding on to about each other. By changing how they worked together bit-by-bit, the team could better model real collaboration for the organization as a whole.

Awareness, responsibility, and transformation are important cornerstones for change, whether the focus is primarily personal and professional development or if the canvas is larger: a team or an organization. Leaders are not only screenwriters or directors—we must attend to our own roles as actors in the drama of organizational change.