Who is accountable for change if it's not you?
Many leaders accept change as part of their job, but are we really accepting accountability for change in a way that we and our organisations need? The pace of constant reinvention required, especially in sectors like energy or pharmaceuticals where our lives literally depend on speed to net zero or new medicines, means change is business as usual. Old convention that change is the Change or Transformation Leader’s job, or belongs to HR or IT, is dead. We are accountable for change whether we are are explicitly leading a change initiative, we are a customer or target of a change initiative, we are calling for change that’s not yet initiated, or we are hearing that call from others.
Each avoidance of this accountability is value destroyed, and worse still, it is an erosion of our own and and our colleagues’ wellbeing. Each acceptance of this accountability is a step closer to reducing uncertainty, to increasing shared meaning and value and to creating a workplace that is energising, engaging and fulfilling to work in.
This blog explores self accountability for change as one of the keys to organisational and personal resilience. It starts with the real (anonymised) case of IT Manager, Marco, who needed to initiate personal and organisational change in an everyday situation.
Marco was responding to concerns raised by his team that they couldn’t see what the outputs of a major IT programme were costing. His team’s request to the Finance function for more granular reporting had been rejected and his follow-on conversation with the Head of Finance led to the same outcome. The grounds for rejection changed with each interaction, but hinged around: everyone else manages without so why does Marco's programme warrant special treatment? When Marco asked his Director for support, she dismissed his request and accused him of being too process focused. This wasn’t the first time Marco had received this type of rejection, so he didn’t push it. When challenged by his team on how this issue would get resolved, Marco could not defend his or the organisation’s position of not knowing.
This is not a trivial case. The bottom-line consequence is that data was not available in a form to determine whether new value was being created or destroyed. At a human level, through repeated pushback on ideas to initiate improvements and change, Marco was losing motivation to solve organisational challenges. His experience of repeated setbacks without a breakthrough was conditioning Marco in to what psychologists call “learned helplessness” - a giving up response and one of the downsides of our brains' plasticity.
So whose accountability is it to ensure a programme is delivering value to the organisation, and that leaders don't end up burnt out and depressed trying? I argue it is everyones’.
Marco's Director did not see it as hers. Her response to Marco was dismissive and judgemental and demonstrated she didn't trust him. Research shows that when trust is lacking, it has the effect of increasing uncertainty which triggers a stress response; plus it reduces our sense of connectedness and demotivation follows. The repetition of this pattern, along with an inability to get things done, brought Marco to a point of feeling burnt out. The ripple effect extended beyond Marco to his team, who had to soldier on in spite of feeling the organisation was not supporting them.
The Director’s accountability, as it would be for any leader, is to create the conditions for their team to thrive. A good foundation is to build trust and motivation. It starts and continues with paying attention to the concerns of individuals, listening and understanding what is driving them….. and their calls for change.
It means we have to know ourselves, our BASKETs (beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience, talents), and be mindful enough to notice where our beliefs and attitudes in particular are bringing us to resist what we are hearing. Then we are positioned to reflect, to engage in critical reflexivity and challenge our own beliefs and consider alternatives. This is our moment to identify opportunities to act, to speed up the rapid reinventions that lead to resilient businesses and people. And even if this process determines that we uphold our current BASKETs, our accountability is to maintain trust and motivation by talking straight, being transparent and showing respect to our colleagues.
Self accountability extends to all our colleagues. The Head of Finance whose reflex response in this case amounted to “computer says no”, has an accountability to engage with the business, and to understand the bigger picture and why some changes from outside of their own patch are worth it. We don’t have to be accountable for initiating all the opportunities to create a more valuable business, but we are accountable for showing loyalty to our colleagues and supporting them to deliver results. If prioritisation is a challenge then straight talk with respect is more trust-building than passive avoidance or active diversion tactics.
Marco himself had a self accountability to identify and develop the skills he needed to be effective. When several attempts to invoke change are rejected, an Agile Learning Leader would pause for reflection to identify what is limiting their performance. If they are struggling to see this clearly, then a Design Thinking approach with their network might help bring awareness and reveal clarity around the opportunity.
In this case I would recommend the FBI behavioural change stairway, which it appears was a development opportunity Marco had in common with the Director and the Finance Manager. The stairway invokes all the stages of: listening and being open to other perspectives; creating empathy where we can describe another persons view in their words; building rapport where we look for points of common understanding and agreement; which release the permission to influence and collaborate for win-win solutions; and realise change.
Change in any team, organisation or common-interest group is the accountability of every individual. This is how individuals and organisations create shared meaning, value and resilience.
Have you been struck?