Making space for change
By Michael J. Berens

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Some years ago, the CEO of the association I was working for called an all-staff meeting to announce a major new initiative to promote innovation at all levels of the organization. It seemed he was inspired by a talk he had recently attended at which Bill Gates related how any employee in the organization could email him their ideas or suggestions and that he invited experimentation, even when it resulted in failure. "We need to encourage more employees to take risks and be willing to fail," exhorted the CEO. At which point my department director, who was seated next to me, muttered underneath her breath, "It's not going to be me."


How is change handled in your organization?
  • 1. Embraced with excitement
  • 2. Accepted with some hesitance
  • 3. Feared and despised

Such disconnects between a leader's vision and organizational culture are all too common in organizations. However well-respected — or well-feared — a leader may be, change cannot and will not occur simply because a leader says it will — even if that pronouncement implies that some person or persons will be charged with implementing the change.

Think about that word "culture." Employees' attitudes, values and expectations are cultivated over time as they become acculturated within the organization. Implementing a system of rewards and punishments to undergird a change initiative may result in the modification of outward behavior — at least for a while, anyway. We are all familiar with policy changes, like "no more checking BlackBerrys during the weekly executive briefing," that result in lemming-like compliance (e.g., "Did you see Bob check his BlackBerry while the CEO was talking?!"). More often than not, the old behavior soon returns when some new executive fiat refocuses everyone's attention.

Making space for change requires modifying organizational structures and culture to create both the possibility and the opportunity for change. It is not enough just to communicate change — to articulate a vision, lay out a plan, define expectations and provide updates — although those are necessary and important steps in managing a change initiative. Likewise, leaders must "walk the talk" — they must model the change they expect from others, but that modeling will appear to be only lip service if the organizational culture is resistant to change. Recall the words of my department director, "It isn't going to be me."

Change is disruptive. It refocuses employees' attention and energy. It creates uncertainty and anxiety; it may also create resentment and suspicion. Leaders need to be prepared to "open up" the organization to accommodate the psychic and social turmoil that a change initiative introduces. Although disruptive, change need not be chaotic. Provide opportunities for employees to voice concerns, ask questions, contribute ideas and try out new roles and behaviors. This involves more than just asking employees for their feedback or suggestions; it means engaging in dialogue (at whatever level is appropriate) and allowing flexibility in procedural and supervisory structures.

Both employees and the organization as a whole (that is, the system of leadership, management, policies and procedures) need to adapt to the new environment created by change. That is where leaders can make their greatest contribution, by creating the space in which change can happen and showing a tolerance for the disruptions that inevitably will occur. Imagine the different response the CEO might have received if, instead of daring staff to fail, he had announced he was making resources available to support innovative projects. He not only would have modeled risk taking, but he would have opened up room in the organization for managers and staff to try out new ideas without jeopardizing their current work assignments or budgets. I suspect my department director would have viewed that as a welcome change.

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.