How to Lead Sustainable Change

Most people think change is hard.  In business, whether it’s a process change or a complete cultural shift, I hear leaders and managers consistently frustrated with the speed and success of change on teams and in organizations.  They describe teams as resistant to change, stuck in their ways, and comfortable with the status quo. They also describe situations where individuals or teams are forced to change, but then, relatively quickly, return to their previous habits or patterns.  It’s exhausting for leaders to work to create change – only to then have to expend energy all over again because the change didn’t last.  There are two kinds of change you can lead: reactive change and sustainable change.

Reactive change is simply people using willpower to change because they feel like they should, have a short-term incentive, or are avoiding pain or consequences.  As soon as the stimulus or threat is removed, they return to their regular habits or patterns.  Sustainable change happens when people have a desire to achieve a new end state and develop the habits and patterns that help them do that.

Here are some ways to tell which change you might be creating in your business or on your team:

Reactive Change: It feels urgent and immediate. Change is about choices and learning, and usually, those things don’t happen instantly.  If someone shows up to work drastically different one day based on someone telling them to, or responds to negative feedback by immediately claiming they will be different going forward, don’t expect it to last.  Not because they don’t have good intentions, but because real change takes a little time.  What if you had to drive a stick shift immediately and you had never done it before?  What if you had to immediately start asking better and more frequent questions as a manager coaching others?  Most people can’t decide, learn, process, and create new habits that quickly.  When you light a fire under people to cause change, you simply settle for reactive change that won’t last.

Reactive Change: It’s done “to” others rather than “with” them. If change feels like it’s directed, enforced, or “handed down” then it probably won’t be sustainable.  In this situation, management becomes the enforcer, and that’s never a viable, long-term solution.  Even if managers manage to keep people in line with the new way of doing things, they crush engagement in the process, and the business erodes as a result of a poor culture.  No one wants to work in that type of environment; even the managers usually hate feeling like a prison guard much of the time.  No one is focusing on growth in this kind of business, and the team is simply trying not to get caught breaking the rules.  Welcome to the kind of place the best performers leave as quickly as they can.

Reactive Change: The goals belong to management. Management decided on the change, possibly attempted to sell it to the team by saying it was a good thing for them, and then gave the team instructions on how to implement the change.  When was the last time you made a real difference to anything because someone else thought you should, but you didn’t agree, didn’t understand, or weren’t sure about where you were headed or why? 

Sustainable Change: It happens at the speed of understanding. Teams are allowed time to process and understand the change. Change has to be understood before people can even decide on whether or not they agree with it.  Individuals need to think about the challenges, the mechanics of doing things differently, and the risks and benefits associated with the change.  If you want sustainable change, even if it is handed down from above, allow the team to figure out how to enact the change, talk candidly about the challenges, and work their way through them.  Most people don’t want to lead a revolution against change if it seems to be well-intentioned, but they still need to figure out how to make it work for them.

Sustainable Change: It’s done collaboratively. The most lasting change happens with involvement, not just compliance.  People readily make changes for things in which they are involved.  It’s the difference between your spouse picking your new car out — even if you have never talked about what kind of new car you wanted – and going shopping together for the right one.  If you are expecting a team to essentially live in a new world they do things differently, allow them to help design the space and contribute to the change, not just live in a world someone else created.  When we are involved in change, it becomes our change, not someone else’s. 

Sustainable Change: The goals belong to everyone. Consider this.  If I were to ask a member of a team involved in reactive change why they are changing, the answer is usually something like, “management told us to.”  When I ask someone involved in sustainable change why they are changing, the answer is more like “we think this will help us be more efficient and provide better service.”  Which person is more committed to doing things to make the change happen in a sustainable way?  It’s very easy to know if your team shares the goals of the modification with management or not.  Just ask them what the goals are and why they’re important to them.  If it doesn’t matter, it won’t be sustainable.

Change is challenging, even when we want it and have a good plan to make it happen.  It’s nearly impossible when someone else wants it for us, and we go along with it begrudgingly in an attempt to stay out of trouble. If we want the future of the business to be different, it’s our job as leaders to create sustainable change to which our team is committed.  If we find ourselves enforcing, policing, punishing, or fighting resistance, we’ve done something wrong in the change process, and we are now the proud owners of reactive, unsustainable change that is only temporary.  The good news is if we alter the road map for change we can reach an entirely different destination.

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