Dealing with Change

More and more, organisations are being forced to face change. Research from guest contributors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton shows that the best leaders in new, globalised economy are those who can effectively guide their staff through these transformational times

Transformation in any organisation only occurs when a leader anticipates change and helps staff to embrace it.

The new data shows for our book All In shows that in this floundering economy, high-performance managers are vastly more agile at helping guide employees through the vagaries of the marketplace – and that can lead to stunning financial results. Consider this: in the 300,000-person survey for the book, our researchers found that those companies most effective at “managing change” reported three-year revenue growth a whopping three times higher than even their high-performance peers.

So what was different about the culture in these most agile of places? First, change started with managers who were considered “authentic” by their people. That meant leaders at all levels:

  • Provided a clear sense of direction
  • Made decisions promptly
  • Treated employees respectfully
  • Took action on issues their people raised; and
  • Behaved in alignment with company values.

To sum it up, managers got off the dime and truly walked the talk. They weren’t transactional, they were transformational.

Second, on an organisational level, these agile companies faced competitive market pressures head-on through innovative product development, customer-focused cultures, and integrity in dealing with their clients. In short, employees felt they could trust their leaders to make the company better, all while doing the right thing for customers.

We found that agility was more important in sustaining above-average business results than clever strategies, compelling product mixes, or the other typical focuses of leaders. Yet think about the time-tested list of prized management skills that are usually touted: knowledge, dependability, courage, vision, fairness, optimism, collaboration, composure … sometimes even a sense of humour. Agility rarely shows up on such lists and, to be honest, it hasn’t appeared on our leadership surveys either – that is, until now.

It is emerging now because of the quickening pace of change in business that’s come with new technology and globalisation, as well as the pressures of the recent economic downturn. Today, employees feel a heightened need for their leaders to help them adapt.

One interviewee we met with put this very clearly: “I have my head down doing my work. We’re going two hundred miles an hour over here. I need my leaders to be looking to the horizon.”

In short, agility is helping a team or an entire company evolve and meet the future in new and innovative ways. So why don’t more leaders do this?

For one thing, because change hurts. According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, change at work induces a physiological reaction in employees that automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and the blood flow to muscles.

This stress response in nature is intended to help our bodies react quickly and effectively to any high-pressure situation. And yet over time, as you can imagine, the reaction on the job leads to stress and discomfort.

It’s not in our nature to seek out such pain in the office; it’s not even in our nature when it might save our lives. In fact, in numerous studies of patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery, on average of only one in nine people adopts healthier day-to-day habits afterward.

As you can see, this resistance to change is a strong biological force, and it certainly isn’t a habit of most managers to help us deal with it.

But to achieve an agile culture, leaders must confront human nature and help alter it. According to Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a University of California research psychiatrist, and David Rock, co-creator of the management coaching curriculum at New York University, leaders of high-performing teams focus employee attention away from the pain naturally associated with change by using experiences and language that point them toward rewarding insights and ideas about the new direction.

They offer a great example: “Two individuals working on the same customer service telephone line could hold different mental maps of the same customers. The first, seeing customers only as ‘troubled children’, would hear only complaints that needed to be allayed; the second, seeing them as busy but intelligent professionals, would hear valuable suggestions for improving a product or service.”

How to help that first agent to see things differently? The researchers suggest one way is by cultivating moments of insight – creating experiences that will allow people to provoke themselves to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.

For instance, as simple starters, a leader might invite real customers into the work facility to speak with agents, or could encourage agents to attend client meetings off-site.

“The help-desk clerk who sees customers as children won’t change the way he or she listens without a moment of insight in which his or her mental maps shift to seeing customers as experts,” Schwartz and Rock say. “Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognise, encourage, and deepen their team’s insights.”

Creating a powerful expectation of change in your organisation through these interpersonal awakenings can begin to counterbalance your people’s normal physiological reactions.

On the flip side, agility is also aided by establishing processes for leaders to be constantly exposed to the upward insights of their employees. Workers are a font of information that leaders need.

Few things are as valuable for a leader seeking to build his or her agility than to heed the advice of John Kotter of Harvard, who discovered that effective general managers spend more than 80% of their time interacting with others.

Instead of hunkering down “getting their work done”, they were investing this time with employees, peers, and clients. As a result, they were better able to perceive issues as they were arising and to gain the knowledge necessary to tackle those problems and formulate changes in strategy.

Leaders must be open to ideas not only from those above them, but from peers and reporting staff at all levels.


Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are authors of the New York Times bestsellers The Carrot Principle and All In.

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