In a gentle way, you can shake the world.
I find myself inspired by this quote, which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. For me, it embodies his philosophy of employing nonviolent resistance to lead the movement for India's independence. A transformative event where he chose to win hearts and minds rather than take up arms.
It serves as a salient reminder to business leaders that, to transform their organisations, they need to spend more time and energy in winning hearts and minds. Transformation is not all about implementing new technologies, new processes and new organisation structures. Especially, if these are pushed into the organisation. It’s also about how you could, and should, engage your people to define, co-create and pull new capability into the organisation.
Let’s face it, most organisations are not comprised of self-organising and self-managing robots. They are still run and operated largely by people. People are not robots. We are ‘wired’ differently. Although our brains have become larger through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, it still retains a part that has been there from the start - the limbic system. The part that controls our animal urges - hunger, sex and fear. Fear is triggered whenever there is uncertainty. When leaders embark on a transformation without engaging their people with a clear and compelling vision that helps them make sense of the situation, or not involve them to shape the way the organisation could, and should work, uncertainly sets in. Our brains crave certainty and we like to feel in control. If people cannot make sense of what the transformation means for them and they are not involved, it triggers a threat response and with it comes fear, anxiety and stress - often impairing performance.
Leaders need to recognise that transformation requires people to think and work differently. To do this, they need to set a clear and compelling vision and help people make sense of it. What may be obvious to them may not be obvious for others, baring in mind that we make sense of the world through our own mental filters and biases. The ‘view’ from the top of the organisation will not be the same as that on the ‘ground floor'. What leaders see as a small tweak may have huge implications on those employees at the bottom of the organisation. So, leaders need to find ways to engage their people authentically and with empathy; and inspire them to come with them on that journey.
They need to place equal emphasis on both the structural and cultural outcomes that their organisation needs to achieve. Pushing change into the organisation through new processes and new systems without involving those affected by the change will often cause resistance. People are much more likely to do something if they were previously engaged, even in a small way, or have helped build it (the so-called ‘IKEA effect’ ). People also need time to make sense of the change and work it out for themselves rather than be told to do something in a prescribed way, or following processes that have been designed for robots, which don’t make sense to them.
Leaders also need to recognise that they don’t necessarily have all the answers and therefore should leverage the collective intelligence* in their organisation. For example, they don’t spend anywhere near as much time dealing with customers on the front line, so will not have in depth knowledge of the issues and problems. Would it make more sense to involve their front line staff, who understand these problems intimately, because they have to deal with them day in, day out ? Involving employees in this way helps to incentivise them to engage in the transformation, as it brings a little control back into their court and also makes them feel heard. In doing so, it provides a catalyst to shift mindsets, which triggers a shift in behaviours and ultimately shift cultural norms, in a way that propels and sustains the transformation.
Don’t get me wrong, transformation also needs the structural changes to processes, technology and organisation. These are crucial enablers, without which it would be hard for people to work differently. The important thing is to see them as enablers and not the only levers to transformation.
I hope leaders can take inspiration from the words of Mahatma Gandhi and lead their transformation with authenticity, empathy and encouragement.
*in the immortal words of Steve Jobs, ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’
Ken Leung is a co-founder of Outvie Consulting.