Four Mindsets that Block Organization Change

By John B. McGuire

Even as the global recession gradually recedes, our volatile economy and advancing technology makes change unavoidable for all of us. Whether it’s lingering high unemployment, rollercoaster financial markets or political turmoil, the landscape and its’ boundaries for leaders keeps shifting – and most of us are quite uncomfortable in it.

That’s understandable. Change, after all, entails risk and conflict. Every boundary and border that must be crossed in order to face these challenges brings the fear and stress of leaving behind the old routine and venturing into the unknown. For leaders, whose decisions in this climate have tremendous implications for colleagues, clients and their own careers, the pressure is even greater.

And that makes change leadership the vital – and often missing – link for grappling successfully with uncertainty. For individuals, change is challenging enough. It pushes us to learn, think and act in new ways as we step from familiar safe zones and  into new and unfamiliar territory.  For organizations, change demands that same response from entire groups of people, whether they are corporate divisions or military units or sports teams.

Large-scale, effective change only happens when an organization’s culture is transformed – and that work calls for sophisticated leadership skills. It also requires patience and preparation because individuals and organizations typically do everything they can to resist change … and for good reasons.

When change leadership succeeds, however, exciting changes in the culture follow. Those organizational dynamics that senior executives dream about, from agility and speed to execution and teamwork, can manifest themselves. I’ve seen it happen with clients, and these positive changes are exciting to behold. Employee morale rises. Innovation increases. Bottom-line performance improves.

That happens when leaders focus more on leading change than merely managing it. Indeed, knowing the difference between management and leadership in your day-to-day work is more important now than ever.  First, though, a word about change management: it’s not easy, and its value shouldn’t be underestimated. It focuses on external systems and processes with the goal of streamlining operations and creating new markets. It takes mental toughness, foresight and strong analytic skills.

But it can only take an organization so far. Change management, in the end, is always about technical efforts designed to minimize uncertainty and risk. It aims to create a predictable world. But the world, as we’ve been reminded over the past two years of economic strife, is not predictable. It is highly uncertain – and that’s where change leadership matters. Change leadership recognizes that human systems and organizational cultures cannot be guided by business strategy alone. Business strategies need to be paired with leadership strategies. When they aren’t, companies find again and again that their people have not developed the leadership skills actually needed to enact a well-designed strategy.

Leadership is a social process and for it to be effective we have to talk to each other effectively.  This is not about better communications or a training course.  Rather we mean that people have to have conversations in which they can show up, be real, drop their shields and be authentic with each other.  Every new boundary we must cross in human relationships requires making sense of in that social process, and as leaders that is not a simple challenge.   Most leaders naturally shy away from it.   

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we’ve identified four mindsets that cause people to retreat from leading change and to resort to the old, comfortable task of simply managing operations. Recognizing and reversing these mindsets builds the groundwork for real and lasting culture change:

  • “Let George do it”: Markets are shrinking. The product development pipeline is dry. Yet, everyone is content to pass the buck as they wait for (George) someone else — an innovative, brilliant leader to arrive and save the day. Vice presidents defer to senior vice presidents who defer to C-level executives, all of whom defer to the CEO, who rarely has a magical solution.  These vertical boundaries are not easy to cross effectively.
  • “Yes, but”: Another familiar refrain: “Yes, I will stand up and lead change, but I need total control over how it turns out.” In their push for happy outcomes, leaders often do not want to give colleagues time and space to innovate or find new ways of responding to change in the business climate and broader world. By sacrificing a thorough process, they get the same old results.  Almost all difficult challenges require a number of stakeholders to work together. 
  • “Either-or”: With their intense, change-management focus on numbers and operations, leaders give the people side of their organizations short-shrift. There’s not enough time to deal with sticky culture issues, they say. Ultimately, though, culture eats strategy for breakfast – and it will consume their operations, too.  All supply-chains require traversing horizontal boundaries.  You must be able to both work in your area and work effectively with   “others” in order to connect the “silos” in the supply-chain process .

  • “Check if off the list”: Leaders with a results-oriented, analytical mindset want to check “culture change” off their list as fast as possible. But it doesn’t work that way. Lasting organizational change can take several quarters, if not years. Impatience will sink it in a hurry.

John McGuire is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture.

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