When it comes to seeking insights on the best leadership practices, the natural inclination is to look towards successful organizations like Southwest Airlines and Zappos for inspiration and guidance.
Not surprisingly, in most countries, one area we often disregard for leadership guidance is the political arena, as most politicians tend to represent examples of what not to do than what leaders should be doing to engage and enable those they serve.
This sad reality becomes especially apparent during election campaigns, where political candidates expect voters to believe in their capability to lead and their vision of creating a better, more inclusive future, even though their tactics to win include character attacks and sowing division within the populace.
And yet, if we distance ourselves from the headaches and negativity that regrettably have become par for the course of political elections, there are some tangible, practical insights that we can learn from. Insights that help us to understand what we need to do to get our employees to embrace the change initiatives we’re putting forth to ensure success in our collective efforts.
It’s from this perspective that I’d like to share with you three lessons from the recent provincial election campaign held this past month in Quebec, Canada, that help to illustrate what measures leaders need to employ to encourage their employees to embrace the change initiatives they have in mind for their organization.
1. Don’t just tell, but show why this change initiative matters
If there’s one thing all of us were told by our mothers, it was to eat our vegetables. And yet, when it comes to our eating habits as adults, eating vegetables is the one thing we have the hardest time doing. Although we obviously understood our parents’ message that eating vegetables would help us grow and be in good health in the future, what we lacked in this lesson from our parents was a concrete connection to what mattered to us as children – specifically, eating food that appealed to our taste buds.
In looking back at this past provincial election, a similar problem was faced by the incumbent political party that had hoped to use a socially divisive issue in an attempt to win a majority government. Given their insistence on using fear to promote their platform instead of connecting their plan to the real-world needs of the population, this party was not only dealt a crushing defeat on election day – garnering their lowest level of support in over 40 years – but their party leader lost her seat in the government assembly.
In terms of your organization, it’s easy for leaders to take the approach of communicating their change initiatives from the perspective that we know what’s best for our organization and consequently, our employees should fall in line with our plans.
And yet, what this political party’s example illustrates is the danger in assuming that because you see the value in this change initiative, those you lead will see it as well or at the very least, should willingly accept it. Their political implosion is a clear example of how quickly things can unravel when we fail to repeatedly demonstrate a beneficial link between the change we’re advocating and what truly matters to those we serve.
After all, if we weren’t willing to listen to our mothers and eat our vegetables because “they’re good for you”, we have to be honest that our employees won’t be willing to embrace our change initiatives unless we consistently demonstrate to them a compelling reason for why it matters both for our organization and our employees.
2. Don’t confuse conviction with inflexibility
Another critical mistake that was behind the incumbent political party’s massive defeat was their obvious inflexibility on certain platform issues that the public had made clear they weren’t widely supportive of. I’m sure from the vantage point of the party leaders, this was probably seen before election day to be a winning approach because it demonstrated their conviction to their ’cause’.
Of course, the reality that this party and its supporters are now grappling with is that what they saw as being conviction was seen by the public at large as proof of the party’s stubborn inflexibility to adjust their plans in light of new information that warned of significant problems if they stayed the course.
It also revealed the party’s unwillingness to listen to different points of view, to ask questions and to listen more intently to those who were against their plans to better understand the concerns of those outside their supporter base. There’s no question that had they made a greater effort to be more outward-focused they wouldn’t be struggling with their current crisis of trying to figure out their future and place in the province’s political landscape.
When it comes to change initiatives in your organization, there’s no question that it’s important that your employees see your commitment and resolve to seeing it through. However, we also have to be mindful in ensuring that our belief in the value of our vision doesn’t render us inflexible to addressing the needs and concerns of those we serve.
If our employees are to embrace our change initiatives – to willingly commit their discretionary efforts to the vision we want to put forth – they need to see that we’re actively listening to hear what they have to say about it.
Our employees need to see that we’re not walking into the conversation thinking we have all the answers. Instead, we need to be open to asking questions and hearing their answers in order to learn from their insights and experiences, if not also to discover what obstacles they see blocking our way as we move forward.
While there’s no question that our employees want us to exemplify a strong conviction and belief in the overall vision that’s driving this change initiative, we also need to demonstrate to our employees that our focus is not on simply protecting or defending our perspective, but on making sure we are putting into effect the best possible approach to achieve the shared purpose that defines our organization.
3. Clarify expectations of what this will look like going forward
When it comes to change initiatives, leaders tend to start off by painting this grand vision of what this effort will create; of describing the various opportunities and markets this endeavour will open up for the organization. After this, they typically start to offer broad examples of the next steps that will need to be taken to get this process started.
While these are important steps to take at the beginning, the problem is that most leaders stop there, thinking that once tasks are delegated, there’s nothing else they need to elaborate on or follow up with in light of changing conditions.
This was another critical mistake made by the losing incumbent political party, where they had no problem promoting the grand vision and value of their divisive social platform, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the negative impact it would have on employees, and how they would address the negative fallout caused by their plan.
This lack of a coherent and thought-out response to these queries naturally lead voters to conclude that this party hadn’t fully considered the potential obstacles their platform would give rise to and what they could do to resolve them. Consequently, even their most faithful supporters turned against them, leading to their lowest level of public support in over 40 years.
That’s why when you’re communicating your change initiative to your employees, you need to provide clarity as to what this initiative will look like in actual practice. Of what your employees should expect from you as things progress and in particular, how you’ll to respond to potential obstacles they envision coming across as the initiative moves forward.
Whether it’s in the political arena, in the public or private sectors, it’s important for leaders to recognize that change of any size is disruptive. The only difference lies in how far the ripples we create move through our organization and to those we serve.
We also need to acknowledge that it’s part of our collective humanity to be apprehensive of change at first because of the uncertainty it creates regarding what we’ll experience going forward.
That’s why it’s important that leaders recognize the fact that our ability to facilitate change in our organization and community is dependent on encouraging a sense of belonging, inclusion, and shared ownership among those we lead.
Our employees need to see that these change initiatives don’t belong to any one person; that they are not the sole creation of those in charge. Rather, they belong to all of us, not only because it’s through our collective efforts that we’re able to make this vision a reality, but because we’re the ones who will first experience the outcomes of the change we’re now helping to create.
Seen from this light, it becomes all the more clear why certain change initiatives fail while others go on to transform not only what we work on, but how we view the contributions we make to our organization.
As leaders we need to make sure that we’re not simply viewing these change initiatives from our perspective, but that we’re getting out of our heads to understand the realities of those we serve – the real drivers and champions of the change we see as necessary to our ability to achieve our shared purpose.