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Personal leadership

Breaking bad habits

How organizational change is like quitting smoking.

I would guess that each of us has broken a bad habit sometime during our lives. Maybe you’ve stopped eating junk food, learned to manage your anger more productively or quit smoking.

In coaching organizational leaders, both formal and informal, I’ve begun to use the lessons from these personal acts of courage and determination (have you ever tried quitting smoking??) as a way to help them tackle the tough job of meaningful organizational change.

Maybe your organization has to learn how to manage conflict more productively so that people speak the truth and really solve problems. Or you need to radically shift directions because of market forces or customer demands. You need to get people out of their “silos” and working together more efficiently. Your staff needs to form better partnerships with customers, suppliers, government regulators or the community. You need to seriously change processes to survive economically.

Changes like these require that people tackle some very bad habits. So here’s how making meaningful change is like quitting smoking and what we can learn from it.

1. It’s hard because we’re addicted without even realizing it.

When changing our personal habits, we’ve all gone through the stage of “I could quit this whenever I want. I just don’t want to right now!” Right. Once we go that first 24 hours without a smoke, we know just how caught we really are. We have to recognize the addiction before we can break the habit.

In organizations, we also become addicted to certain ways of doing business, ways that become so much the norm that we don’t even think about them anymore. They are “just the way things are.” In meetings, everyone is pretty quiet while the boss talks. Then, afterwards, in the hall, people gather in small cliques to criticize what she said. No one even stops to say,

“Wait a minute. This is dishonest.” We have to surface key assumptions that keep us locked into the status quo before we can make big changes.

2. There is no silver bullet.

Anyone who has quit a bad habit knows that you can’t just do one thing. You have to look at the many dimensions of the issue. People who quit smoking wear patches, join support groups, start carrying gum and celery around with them, exercise more, temporarily stop drinking alcohol, brush their teeth after every meal. They take a combination of actions to address the many ways in which smoking affects their lives.

Similarly, I have not yet seen a meaningful change come from moving boxes around on an organization chart. Or training everybody in some new way of doing things. Or even bringing in a consultant (not that a consultant is a bad thing!) to assess the problem and make recommendations.

Any meaningful change will take a combination of actions to address the many dimensions of an organizational system. Structure is sometimes part of the issue and so you reorganize some reporting relationships. You also will probably need to look at systems and procedures; culture (that set of unwritten rules referred to above) and how to shift that; new skills that people need to learn; who may need some coaching; and whether you are asking people to do things in a new way and rewarding them for doing them in the old way!

3. You need vision and heart.

Women who are trying to change their eating habits for the better often hang pictures of svelte people on the refrigerator (maybe men do this, too. I just haven’t seen it). Athletes trying to improve their games visualize the perfect swing or jump. When quitting smoking, it helps to picture yourself smoke-free, smelling better and feeling better. We also find that, if we tap into an ongoing source of motivation, it helps us to continue the difficult task of changing our lives. We look for role models to encourage us or we read books that remind us that we can do it!

In organizations, we have thought for a long time that a leader must have “vision.” What the research is telling us now is that, if only the leader has vision, no real change is likely to follow. Rather, when critical mass of people within an organization has a vision, they can move mountains. This is especially true when the leader pours her energy into the vision and “encourages the heart,” as Barry Posner and James Kouzes espouse in their book The Leadership Challenge.

4. It takes time and persistence.

I quit smoking five times before I never picked up a cigarette again. Studies have shown that the more times a smoker “quits,” the more likely they are to actually quit for good! This is because, even with the best vision in the world, old habits die hard. To succeed, we must be very patient with ourselves and forgiving of our failed attempts. We must try again and again.

I don’t care how great the staff retreat was, it will take time and persistence to create any real change from it! This means follow up, monitoring, championing, uncovering more operating assumptions that need to be modified and addressing the many dimensions of the organizational system which support positive change.

So what’s a leader to do?

1. Build the vision for change. I encourage you to look past the problem you need to solve and ask yourself, “What do we want to differently or better? What do we want the future to look like?”

Don’t just ask yourself that. Ask the people who will be impacted by the change. Listen to their ideas and synthesize them into a vision for change. This kind of conversation can happen very effectively in a retreat setting, away from the phones and the press of everyday business.

2. Take a systemic view of change. What operating assumptions keep the status quo? What systems within the organization will encourage people to make the needed change? Which ones must be altered to break down the barriers to change? What new skills will individuals and groups need?

3. Make the investment and be persistent. Don’t let the change die. Follow up, monitor, and keep asking, “How are we coming on that change we want?” Encourage people to keep tackling the difficult issues that bar the way to the desired future. Meaningful change usually entails deep learning. That takes time and energy. Often times, it does need the help of someone outside the organization who has skills in the process of human change who can help to develop strategies to keep things on track, teach new skills, coach and support and facilitate.

4. Cultivate patience and forgiveness. Urgency is good. Impatience, on the other hand, is counter productive. The former generates energy. The latter throws people into fear of reprisal for making mistakes.

When people fall on their faces in an effort to do things differently or better, pick them up, dust them off, congratulate them for the effort and coach them for the next time. When people persist in doing things the same old way, respectfully call them on it and ask why. You may find that there are more barriers that you need to help people break down in order for them to make a successful transition to a new way of doing things.

5. Reflect and regenerate. As a leader, your heart needs encouragement, too. Make sure that you are not driving yourself so hard that you lose perspective. Take time to smell the roses, listen to a good piece of jazz, or walk in the park with your dog. Hackneyed advice? Not according to leading experts in change management. A leader needs to be passionate and persistent in order to hold the tension in an organization under the stress of change. However, a passionate and persistent leader without perspective can create more chaos than transformation. This is because your subconscious mind needs time to work on those knotty problems you face. And your spirit needs rest to see the patterns and themes that will help people to do their best. Otherwise, you get caught in a cycle of doing without reflecting and, as you get exhausted, so will your people.

Lessons learned from personal change applied to an organization? Why not? An organization, after all, is just person plus person plus person…

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Keys Organizational Consulting, LLC ~ phone 206-320-0708

Contact Dee Endelman ~ phone 206-320-0708 ~ email dee@keysconsult.com
Keys Organizational Consulting, LLC ~ 1521 17th Ave. E. ~ Seattle, Washington 98112
Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.

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Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.