What are your leadership capabilities during change?

For many leaders, managing the business and addressing the needs of workers are at odds. They ask, “How can I make the tough decisions if I have to focus on the emotions and concerns of my employees?” The answer isn’t about choosing either the people or the business. Instead, the answer lies in being authentic and building trust.

Imagine a wheel that has trust as its hub. Radiating out from that hub are the spokes, which represent 12 change leader capabilities. Six spokes represent operational capabilities and the other six represent people-related capabilities (Figure 1).

article - leadership capabilities during change - capability wheel

To create and sustain an environment of trust, leaders must become adept at balancing all 12 capabilities. The following defines each in more detail:

  1. Catalysing change is championing an initiative or significant change, consistently promoting the cause and encouraging others to get on board.
  2. Coping with transition is about recognising and addressing the personal and emotional elements of change. It includes being in touch with your own emotions and reactions.
  3. Sense of urgency involves taking action when necessary to keep things rolling. A leader who has a strong sense of urgency moves fast on issues and accelerates the pace of change for everyone.
  4. Realistic patience requires knowing when and how to slow the pace down to allow time and space for people to cope and adapt.
  5. Being tough denotes the ability to make the difficult decisions about issues and people with little hesitation or second-guessing.
  6. Being empathetic involves taking others’ perspective into account when making decisions and taking action.
  7. Optimism is the ability to see the positive potential of any challenge and to convey that optimism to others.
  8. Realism and openness involve a willingness to be candid and clear about a situation and prospects for the future. It includes speaking the truth and admitting personal mistakes and foibles.
  9. Self-reliance involves a willingness to take a lead role or even to do something yourself when necessary. A leader who is self-reliant has a great deal of confidence and is willing to step up and tackle most new challenges.
  10. Trusting others means being comfortable with allowing others to do their part of a task or project. It includes being open to others for input and support.
  11. Capitalising on strengths entails knowing your strengths and attributes and confidently applying them to tackle new situations and circumstances.
  12. Going against the grain involves a willingness to learn and try new things – to get out of your comfort zone – even when the process is difficult or painful.

Finding the right behaviours, tone and style can feel like an impossible balancing act at times. But, because trust is so crucial to a leader’s effectiveness, it is a challenge that cannot be ignored.

Leadership tendencies

My experience in using the capability wheel in training as many as a thousand leaders to lead change and in observing leaders over 35 years, is that a large majority of leaders are more comfortable with operational capabilities (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) rather than people-related capabilities (2, 4, 6, 8,10,12). In general, people feel more comfortable dealing with transactional issues rather ones that evoke emotion, and introspection. I have found this particularly so in males. However, whilst there is a gender slant, I have found that a large majority of women in leadership positions also find it more difficult to deal with people related issues.

Typically, having completed an analysis where people are asked to identify capabilities where they are truly very comfortable, the scores are in the order of four operational capabilities versus one people related capability.

The self-evaluation reveals to people, for the first time, specific opportunities to improve their leadership capabilities during change.

Taking the opportunity

Once the opportunity is identified for improved leadership capabilities, the onus is on leaders to take action. A general action which is useful is to find a colleague strong in a capability in which you are weak and discuss what to do in given circumstances.

Specifically, leaders can try different options to improve their capability – including, but not limited to:

1. Catalysing change: Start small with a cause or a project you believe in. Nothing breeds a passion for taking in more causes like a success with a previous cause.

2. Coping with transition: Think about changes in your personal life or work life that have caused emotional disturbance. Think about the way you coped. Draw an emotional timeline of the highs and lows over time for yourself and get your staff to do it too. Encourage people to talk openly about how they felt during change.

3. Sense of urgency: Complete a risk analysis of the probability and consequences of not completing the activities you are responsible for on time. Create action lists and compartmentalise your time in 90 minute blocks to complete the tasks including leaving 90 minutes for selections of mundane short term tasks, e.g. answering emails, returning and making calls.

4. Realistic patience: Conduct a sensing session with your staff. Do it one-on-one. Many people will not open up to not coping in a group and if they do, it may well come out as an emotional outburst which makes everyone feel uncomfortable. If too many people are feeling uncomfortable with the pace of change, consider allocating or finding extra resources so that at least the task load is lightened, allowing more time for thinking and evaluating.

5. Being tough: This is more difficult to change as it is heavily influenced by values and personality. Thinking about the consequences of inaction and the impact inaction will have on the lives of the majority of people and the customers and clients you serve helps, but for some people will not be enough. If this is you, seek guidance from peers and your superiors to help make the tough decisions. But, seek it quickly.

6. Being empathetic: Take a moment to put yourself in other people’s shoes. If you do not know enough about them to do that, stop being lazy and get out there and start asking them questions about themselves, their family, their ambitions and fears. Ask with no particular agenda other than being aware. You will find it builds trust outside periods of change too.

7. Optimism: For those of us without a sense of optimism, there are at least two things that you can do. The first and simplest is look back at times in your life when the glass representing your world’s fortunes seemed half empty and reflect on what positive things eventually emanated from that time. Look for similar outcomes from this time. Set a goal and commit yourself to achieving that goal in the knowledge that even without trying, good things have come from adversity in the past.

Another thing you can do which takes more than reflection and goal setting is to use Covey’s Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence technique. Draw two concentric circles, one about twice the diameter of the other on a single sheet of paper. Write all of your concerns within the outer ring. If you have more concerns than will fit, use another sheet of paper and do the same. Now comes the difficult bit. Addressing each concern, think about what you can control. Not how others might react to what you do or what others may decide, just what you can control. For example, if you are concerned that you will not get the support you need. Ask your manager what support they intend to give. Be specific about what support you need and why. You cannot control what your manager decides, but you can control what you say to them and how you manage yourself. Set a plan and take action on the things you can control. You may never get the optimism that everything will turn out well, but you will have the optimism, which you can pass on to your team, that comes from being in control.

8. Realism and openness: One key to being open and realistic is to ensure that you always tell your people what you know. If you know the outcomes of a decision, tell them. If you don’t know that, then tell them the process by which the decision will be made, who will be involved in the process and when the process will be finalised. People can adapt and cope with change. It is ambiguity that is most people’s Achilles’ heel of coping. Always admit to mistakes. Everybody makes them; the proud and self-indulgent are the ones who can’t admit to them. Don’t go overboard apologising. No one will follow a sycophant. But be ready to admit and take steps to remedy the error and ensure the same mistake is not made twice.

9. Self-reliance: Sometimes, it is necessary to lead by example. It is necessary to metaphorically, or even physically, roll your sleeves up and do things for yourself and for others that those responsible are seemingly unable to do for now. Your “follow me” leadership style at this moment may be what is required to galvanise others into action.

10. Trusting: In a period of change, this is a no-brainer – even for the most devout of micro-managers. Unless you are superhuman, you will need to trust others to get some of the work done. If you find that difficult, then determine for key tasks whether it is the right attitude, detailed knowledge or key skills that are required to get a task done well. It may be a combination. Choose the appropriate mix of attitude, knowledge and skills that matches the needs of the task. Don’t concern yourself if that means getting someone from marketing to oversee a delicate people issue if they have the right attitude and the right skill, demanded of the nature of the task in handling people. Choose people with the right attitude to confide in. Don’t concern yourself if they don’t have the knowledge or skill to solve the problem at hand. What is often needed is a sounding board with the right attitude for the people affected.

11. Capitalising on strengths: Sometimes in change, you have to make decisions which are not arrived at collegiately. You have to go with what you know, what your experience tells you and what your intuition tells you. Ultimately, you are accountable and if you and your team make mistakes, then you want to make mistakes that you fully supported at the time, not ones you had doubts about.

If this does not describe you, then there are at least two alternatives. One is to work with a “kitchen cabinet” of peers or staff that you trust to support and help you in the process of decision making. Get them to provide a challenge to your decisions and a sounding board for discussions. . The other is to do the same with your manager or a mentor.

12. Going against the grain: Just as it is important at times to make the call yourself, it is often important to realise when you are perhaps out of touch with reality and go where the evidence leads you. You are still accountable for the decision and it should still feel like it is the right decision. Do this when you can get facts that support a decision which is counter to your intuition. Ensure that you verify what you are being told are indeed facts however, and not opinion dressed up as facts.

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