It’s been an interesting year for culture. Organisations have been scrambling to adapt to digitisation, globalisation and other large-scale change for years, and then throw in a global pandemic — and the pace of change went a bit crazy. But as the chaos recedes, the demand for leadership teams has never been greater.
Culture Change

What’s come out of that trying experience is something to celebrate. People are now officially important. But aligning them to a new direction for the organisation, and making those efforts succeed, requires leaders who can not only effectively lead, but also land and evangelise change. In this respect, the first job of leadership is to set the direction and the tone.

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Leaders may feel more challenged to bring their people with them, if too many feel exhausted and somewhat disengaged from the organisation. The good news is that tough times present an opportunity to show they mean business. And the better news is there’s a fairly robust process for change leadership. It’s time for leaders to set the route, grip the wheel and declare, ‘We’ve got this’.

Bringing better focus to change

Without enough clarity around change, people can feel like they’re pedalling really fast with nowhere to go. Organisations instinctively reacted to circumstances last year in the absence of a rule book. Huddled in the trenches, CEOs focused on engaging people directly in their newly assumed role as chief communicator for the business. Other leaders were inadvertently sidelined as bystanders to rapidly unfolding proceedings.

Conditions are now right for leaders to get more proactive. The road ahead looks brighter, and they can make faster, more productive progress when they have the backing and full participation of their people. Someone clever at the top needs to guide the strategy — steering clear of the predictable 45-minute town hall or away day.

Equally, it’s not the internal communications team’s responsibility to get everybody behind the strategy. They’re in charge of keeping the engine oiled once buy-in happens.

Getting that buy-in is the domain of leadership. And again, the usual fall-back options, such as an email broadcast, will likely land with a thud. Conversing with teams and helping people make sense of the strategy’s relevance will capture their interest, especially if the meaning is contexualised.

The focus on communication capabilities is intensifying because they’re increasingly important to leaders, and the entire organisation, especially with an accelerating pace of change.

And it’s expected to be one of the top pandemic-influenced trends to build on in 2021. Over a third (38%) of internal communication professionals singled out ‘more empowerment of line managers to communicate and engage with their teams’.1 Interestingly, the top trend was ‘increased focus on mental health and employee wellbeing’ (70%).1 The way that leaders lead is crucial to physical, emotional and career wellbeing. No amount of mindfulness apps or mung beans will paper over the cracks of poor leadership.

Equipped for this stuff?

Some leaders are already really good at leading the charge for transformative change. Some aren’t. And some are so terrified of getting it wrong, they haven’t tried yet. But equipping them all to engage and inspire people to make a difference will bring out everyone’s better.

It’s about ‘shrinking the change’ by making it more approachable and manageable. Leaders don’t have to be brilliant storytellers or have amazing communication skills — they just need to have integrity and intent. That, and some basic understanding of why humans think and act the way they do.

Understanding and optimising the brain’s inner workings

All people have a negativity bias. It’s hardwired into the psyche as a survival instinct inherited from Neanderthal ancestors. Basically, the first job of the brain is to scan the environment for threats. The emotional part of the brain — the bit that’s running the show around 95% of the time — is constantly locked in on this task.

Of course, surprise encounters with a lion are unlikely for most people these days, but anything that causes a stress reaction will ensure the thinking part of the brain shuts down and a rush of negativity takes over. Change of any sort often does this, overriding rationality and problem solving. And this tendency is infectious. Negativity can spread throughout organisations like wildfire.

Once leaders are aware that this reaction to stress is perfectly normal, they’re able to help people see things in a different way — to zoom in on the positives. Just imagine what leaders can do with employee engagement if they have access to a toolkit for leaning in and having a conversation.

Through two-way conversations, which reactivate the thinking part of the brain, they can guide people to reframe perceptions for themselves. The art of leadership is expressed in the ability to do this in a non-patronising way.

Leadership style doesn’t matter. It’s OK to be introverted or extroverted, to lead from the front or the back and to assert other preferences. What really matters is integrity and an intentional approach to storytelling — the tone and direction they set. Reinvigorating and integrating efforts, so they all match up, will also ensure the story naturally sells itself. That’s what communication is all about.

‘If not you, then who?’

People are emerging from a sobering period of uncertainty, and they’re looking for reliable leadership. Day to day, it should come from their line managers, the people they know the best and need to trust the most. And for all who lead, it’s crucial to trust that they can do their job, that even their worst will be better than somebody else’s best.

Perfection can be intimidating. People just need to have faith that there’s a clear purpose, true commitment and genuine caring behind the decisions leaders make and the actions they take. And when it comes down to it, for those in leadership positions, ‘if not you, then who?’

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Sally Earnshaw

Managing Director, Culture Change Consulting