A recent article at Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Visionary Leadership Fails,” describes how it is counterproductive to teach managers how to lead change if they aren’t in fact committed to leading the desired change, project, or strategy. If managers become strong change leaders but aren’t aligned with leading the change vision cast by senior leaders, they’re likely to go in their own direction, causing confusion.
The best way to gain commitment from middle managers for change is to involve them in setting the direction of the organization. In large organizations, this can be difficult to do, so often it becomes the role of the change agent to figure out how to gain commitment from those who weren’t involved in designing the change. Even when people have been involved, peer pressure and groupthink can cause them to agree to a change they aren’t really committed to. You’re left relying on people to implement change who don’t really want to implement it.
The HBR article advocates for gaining commitment to the change, project, or strategy before equipping managers with the skills and tools to lead change. But a group of nodding heads in a conference room does not necessarily equal commitment. How do you know if managers are really committed to implement a change?
To assess whether a manager is truly committed to doing what it takes to achieve the desired results of the project, ask them questions to identify what they think might stand in the way. Give them an opportunity to share their concerns in a safe environment. They may not overtly admit their lack of commitment, so call it a risk assessment instead.
Managers, like any other human being, may resist change if they don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, or if it’s going to affect themselves or their team in a negative way. The following are some potential questions you can ask to identify potential sources of resistance.
- What factors do we need to watch out for as we start to implement this change?
- What might stand in the way of our success?
- What impacts of the change do you foresee for yourself and your team?
- What assumptions are we making that may not be true?
- What, if anything, would be a better use of time, energy, or resources?
- What, if anything, are you afraid might happen if we implement this?
- What could happen with this project that would keep you up at night?
The point is not to dwell on the negative. You don’t want to generate dissatisfaction where there was none. So you probably don’t want to ask all these questions at once. Use your intuition to determine which questions might illuminate beliefs that may become roadblocks.
Remember, just because someone sees obstacles doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to overcoming them. Follow up the questions above with the key question to assess commitment:
- In light of these issues, are you committed to doing what is necessary to get this project done anyway?
If they say “yes,” then great! Find out what you can do to support them. If they hem and haw about it, ask what it would take to gain their commitment and build from there. If the hesitation is strong, it would be wise to revisit the risks and whether it’s really possible to overcome them.
Equipping managers to lead change only works if they are going to lead the “right” change! So make sure that you have commitment before you give them the tools to get it done.