Jennifer Simpson, Ph.D, Generative Council member and partner at Conversant, writes about the power of tapping into people’s pent-up desire to contribute to create an experience of energizing vs. depleting change. What is your experience of change?
Boy is there a lot of change afoot these days! In the last few months I’ve worked with colleagues and clients who are seeing their already-dynamic worlds up-ended even more substantially. Health care organizations are merging and re-imagining business models, high-technology firms are splitting and re-organizing, consumer product companies increasingly find that they are custodians of a brand and relationship brokers between key suppliers vs being manufacturers of anything themselves. With all this change in how work gets done, people are also re-inventing relationships to work and organizational life.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece titled The Heart of Transformation about the difference I’ve seen in change efforts when leaders focus on creating conditions that engage and embolden vs. “managing” people through a painful death-and-dying “change process.” Since then, I’ve talked to hundreds of leaders across dozens of organizations and industries and continue to be amazed, and saddened, by the level of stress, angst, and worry that traditional approaches to organizational change often cause. This is especially worrisome because we know that those emotions are the death-knell to employee engagement, and that they wreak havoc on physical and emotional health in ways that have real repercussions for individuals, families, and communities too.
This week, a colleague of mine wrote about the challenge of acceptance—of acknowledging when things are hard and owning our vulnerability as part of the human (and therefore the leadership) experience. She beautifully and eloquently described the courage it takes to accept what is “because dealing with it might feel uncomfortable, inconvenient, unfamiliar, scary, or risky.”
When I reposted this piece, a woman I’ve known all of my life commented that, “It is an act of courage, particularly in the US corporate culture. You are not supposed to “give in to weakness” and accept your limitations. You’re expected to keep pushing on, fulfilling your job duties as though you’re an automaton with no limitations, feelings, wounds or weakness. If you don’t, one of the 300 ppl in line for your job will gladly fulfill those duties, so you may as well get out of the game.”
At a time when leaders worry about “brain drain” and losing talent at alarming rates and more and more companies are finding that their succession pools aren’t deep enough to meet expected turnover in the most senior ranks, comments like these should be alarming, but likely aren’t surprising. I’ve found that the real art of leading transformation comes from helping people find a story that bridges the past, present, and future in a way that makes sense and allows people to find meaningful ways to contribute to something they can get excited about and quickly and eagerly get behind.
Over the years, I’ve see firsthand how collaboratively crafting that compelling story, then tapping into the inherent wisdom and pent-up desire to contribute within the system allows people to begin making a meaningful difference and “living the future” right away. Organizations that take this approach often find their periods of change to be energizing and enlivening and use them as moments to reinforce and reaffirm their most deeply held commitments. These companies tend to produce out-sized results and the people who work there and communities they touch are all the better for it.
Many of the changes happening today have big stakes associated with them—both for the future health of the organizations and industries, and for the way we approach some of the most important social and public health issues of our time. The outcomes matter a great deal, but the way we get there matters too. We have a real opportunity for this be one of the most exciting periods of expansion and innovation in our history, or we can make it really, really hard. I’ve got a lot of hope that we’ll emerge from these changes into more humane ways of working and organizing, but that isn’t guaranteed and starting out right will make all the difference.
If you find yourself in the midst of big change, I’d love to hear the stories you and your organizations are telling and what inspires or worries you…