Leaders Who Get Change Right Know How to Listen

So to spark and sustain change, not just once but again and again, it’s clear that leaders have to communicate better. But how?

Organizational change comes at a cost. It requires people to sacrifice something they value, whether it’s time, money, responsibilities, control, status, comfort or relationships. The more your change effort disrupts those things, the more people will resist or even rage against it.

That helps explain why failure is so common, but there’s more to it. In a survey of more than 2,000 global executives, managers and employees, only 54 percent of respondents said their change initiatives succeeded — and the most frequently cited problem (by 65 percent of those surveyed) was change fatigue. Another big problem is difficulty getting people to connect with the larger vision: 44 percent of survey respondents said they resisted change efforts because they didn’t understand the initiative, and 38% said they didn’t agree with the change.

So to spark and sustain change, not just once but again and again, it’s clear that leaders have to communicate better. But how?

When we analyzed successful change initiatives in business and society, we found that their leaders invested a lot of time in early listening tours and then empathically and systematically articulated their vision to one stakeholder group after another — even in the face of pressure to act.

Take Anne Mulcahy, who stepped into the CEO role at Xerox in 2001, during a particularly tough time in the company’s history. She had to help Xerox recover from a series of missteps by previous leaders, including product failures and poor accounting practices, as well as an economic downturn that had pushed the company to the brink of bankruptcy. As Xerox hemorrhaged cash, Mulcahy felt pressure to show results right away. Yet she chose to spend her first three months talking with employees, understanding their concerns and testing their reactions to potential solutions to the company’s problems. What she learned informed her strategy for the turnaround, which she then communicated through a series of town halls, roundtables and memos. In fact, she logged nearly 200,000 miles that first year as she traveled to each site to share the strategy and reignite enthusiasm about the future of Xerox. “The response was overwhelming,” Mulcahy said. “Defection slowed to a trickle. Hope rekindled. Energy returned.” And she restored the company’s profitability — the turnaround was a success.

It’s critical to listen first, as Mulcahy did, so you can understand what change feels like for those you’re trying to persuade. Depending on how ambitious your goals are — and how entrenched the resistance is — this may take months. You’ll have to empathize with — and win over — many audiences.

It doesn’t always take months of research, however. For smaller-scale changes, even one or two conversations with key stakeholders can yield insights that will improve the efficacy of your plans and demonstrate that you are invested in helping your teams succeed. With each conversation, your movement will gain momentum.

Patti Sanchez is senior vice president of strategic services at Duarte Inc.

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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