“You support what you help create” (Alinda Nortje: Executive Chairperson, Free To Grow)

In a world of increasing turbulence, including unpredictable financial and socio-political contexts, leaders are under pressure to transform their organisations towards achieving sustainable growth. This “transformation” may include the adoption of new technologies, major strategic shifts, process reengineering, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, attempts to improve innovation and creativity significantly and cultural change. Although the right thing to do, many of these transformation efforts are not successful, or are only partially successful, on account of predictable mistakes that are made during the change process, some of which may include the following:

  • Unclear strategic intent – the strategy is not communicated well
  • Department’s activities are not well coordinated to execute the strategy
  • Not all the current systems are aligned to meet the demands of the change strategy
  • Management style is non-participative
  • Requisite skills are not in place in current employees to execute on the change needs
  • The values that should be driving the required change are unclear or are not being lived
  • Skills and specialisations within the respective teams are not being used to implement and sustain the change

One of the key mistakes frequently made is when leadership fails to promote cooperation and dialogue to effect the change positively. Ken Blanchard (Leading at a Higher Level) notes: “Expanding involvement and influence is at the core of the change leadership strategies. The core belief of this approach is that the best way to initiate, implement and sustain change is to increase the level of influence and involvement from the people being asked to change, surfacing and resolving concerns along the way. Without this strategy you cannot achieve the cooperation and buy-in you need from those responsible for making the changes you’ve proposed”. It would seem that dialogue (transferring meaning to each other) is an essential ingredient in the change process, where:

  • You, as leader, get the opportunity to share the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of change with your team, and
  • They get the opportunity to share their reality: their concerns and questions, and also their suggestions, with you

Without dialogue, employees feel that they have no voice, that they are not heard. Ken Blanchard warned: “People who are left out of shaping change have a way of reminding us that they are really important”. When emotions are overlooked or disregarded, employees react negatively. So strategy, structure, culture and systems, although important, are never the central issue in change contexts – the kernel of a change initiative is transformation of the behaviour of employees and behaviour change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to employees’ feelings. Here, leaders find ways through dialogue to help employees see the problems, challenges or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.

Creating a platform for dialogue requires the following elements:

  • A willingness and determination on the part of all in leadership to ‘be present’ – absent leadership sends all the wrong messages, particularly in times of change. Senior managers need to ‘walk the floor’, conversing frequently with the employees, demonstrating care and compassion.
  • Lending a “listening ear” – facilitating conversations without the ‘tell’ dimension. This form of dialogue listens for what is being said between the lines and looks for the underlying emotional content of what the employees are saying.
  • Acknowledging any ‘pain’ being experienced – any change initiative will produce a measure of discomfort and “hassle” for employees. Managers should not disregard this phenomenon, but rather offer support, assistance and care during tough times.
  • Designing a regular forum for dialogue – feedback, from employees to managers and managers to employees, is essential in a change environment. People need to know how well they are doing – that which they are doing well and areas for needed improvement. Sitting in a circle and discussing how well “we” are doing with the change process is hugely beneficial – note the inclusive language in the use of “we” terminology.
  • Expressing appreciation for contribution – not just for efforts applied in implementing the change, but also for contributions with respect to ideas, surfacing of problems, etc. Employees want to be part of creating and implementing the required change.

Dialogue is an important component of any change initiative. Dialogue encourages involvement and the potential and ability to influence, even at the lowest levels. It expresses the “we value you” sentiment and offers people worth. Dialogue engenders a sense of ownership in the change process.