Who is responsible for the change? Shining the light on everyone’s responsibility

perspectives Dec 04, 2017

In our conversations with executive leaders, they often express a frustration with why the organisation isn’t changing. When we enquire into what their part of the change journey might be, there is sometimes a look of bewilderment; why would we enquire into their part when the issue is so obviously other people’s inability to get on board?

As we talk with other levels of the organisation, the story is often very different. In discussions with internal change champions, we hear of leadership behaviours that contribute to the resistance that organisations face into.

Yet sharing this directly in organisations with explicit or implicit hierarchy isn’t easy. And what if the last person who went into the executive office and said, “You’re the Problem” was quickly dispatched from the organisational system?

If you are an exasperated advocate for change, with leaders in your organisation who apparently aren’t aware of their own need to change or are dismissive of their ‘part in the mess’, what to do? How can you be courageous without putting yourself in a compromised position?

Some ways to do this include:

Explore it with them directly in a constructive way

Whenever you provide feedback to someone with a greater level of power or authority than yourself, the consequences, if it is delivered or received poorly, can be higher. Take some time to ensure you position any feedback in a way that your positive intention is very clear and you are neither judging nor blaming:

  • Find what they really care about and help them to see the link between the outcome they want and how they need to behave or show up to maximise the chance of success.
  • Share with them how you feel when they behave in a particular way. Ensure that your observations are objective, and are based on what you personally saw or experienced.
  • Explicitly ask them for permission to share your experience of their behaviours. This can be very powerful; it is difficult to say no, as this demonstrates a lack of willingness to receive feedback and if they say yes then they are empowering you to share.
  • Demonstrate you understand the positive intention behind their behaviour so they feel acknowledged and not judged.
  • Draw attention to what they are doing well and where they are role modelling the desired behaviours.
  • Have compassion – no one is perfect and if they are showing willingness to change and shift, ensure you make people across the organisation aware of their endeavours to change.
  • Remind them that they are not fully responsible for others behaviours; however, their power and authority means their behaviours and the inferences taken by others are significantly magnified. Therefore, they need to demonstrate a great willingness to embody the change they would like to see in the organisation.

Garner support from people in positions of influence

  • Develop messages in the organisation that everyone is responsible for culture, and without directly blaming anyone or pointing the finger, invite leaders to share their own perspective of how they need to model the desired behaviours. Institute ongoing feedback mechanisms amongst executive teams to support ongoing development.
  • Gather evidence of behaviours to share with their coach or a person in a position of responsibility who can provide them constructive feedback.
  • If you coach or provide feedback or guidance to other peers of the senior executive, coach them on how they can have conversations with their peers about the consequences of their behaviours.
  • In extreme circumstances where behaviours are a violation of human rights (bullying, harassment, discrimination), escalate the matter. There are a number of escalation mechanisms an organisation may have including whistleblowing, complaint procedures, human resources, and legal action.

Find other ways

Despite all your and other people’s efforts, you are never guaranteed to be able to create a shift in someone else’s behaviour. All you can do is choose how to respond in the face of the challenge. Some choices of how to respond if leaders simply aren’t prepared to own their part of the change include:

  • Work around them. What are the areas you can change that will influence the culture in a positive direction? Running test and learn culture projects or building up a coalition of the willing can harness a great deal of energy.
  • Wait them out. Our experience is that leaders can only ignore their responsibilities or abuse their powers for so long before the system finds a way of ejecting them. This, however, can take a long time to work through. As Martin Luther King observed, “the trajectory of justice is long, but it is towards good”.
  • Leave the organisation; the time and energy it takes to shift and evolve a culture may not make the best use of your skills and passions. You may be better suited for an organisation that is more ready for what you have to offer.

It is hard enough to face up to our own responsibilities for how we influence the systems we are part of. It is another thing altogether to support others to see their responsibilities, yet it is also the most profound and powerful way we have seen cultures turn around rapidly.

If any of this article resonates with you and you can observe some of these challenges in your organisation, then you may be interested in the Adaptive Cultures community. The community of practitioners are actively exploring many of these themes within their sphere of organisations, and actively developing ways and means to respond and adapt. You can find out more here: Accreditation

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