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Leaders are often asked how they manage change. Most leaders would find this topic an uncomfortable
one especially when change entails moving people from a comfort zone to a less certain future.
However, change cannot be ignored. The environment we now operate in is an ever changing one
which requires leaders to be mindful about managing change. As the saying goes “change is the
only constant”. To understand change, we need to understand the push and pull factors for change
and how to read and calculate these to ride the winds of change. We need to ask ourselves how
we can help enable change to take place in a more purposeful and intentional way.
If the environment is always changing and leaders operate in a changing environment, then learning
to adapt to change is inevitable. The question we have to ask ourselves is how we should focus
our attention. A good starting point in managing change is to pay attention to how organisations
and systems are organised, the service delivery standards and the cost and value of everything
that we do. We also need to understand that cost and value are different concepts.
For those in policy leadership roles, there is the need to coordinate policies and programs across
all departments and manage the coordination setup. Paying attention to coordination will better
enable us to manage the bottle necks or tensions that often reside in the nexus of structures
and people in various parts of the organisation. Links or the lack of links can facilitate or
For all leaders, there is the non-negotiable challenge of HR management – the system of hiring
and dismissing, performance management and people development which few enjoy but is at the core
of people management. It takes courage to hire or promote someone who may break the tradition
or prescribe norms for qualifications and experience in order to get the right person for a job.
In some instances, someone with a good track record may be better suited for a role than someone
who has served for many years.
Sometimes it is much easier to bring about change in a crisis as the reason for doing so is clear
and urgent. It is harder to bring about change in the status quo as there will always be the
proponents of the “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken” mentality even when there are ideas for improvement.
In some situations, improvements or change may mean shifting people’s power and authority which
often goes against our human nature. Change is after all mostly uncomfortable.
So how can we better facilitate change? It begins with building trust and offering a professional
view without any hidden agenda. We can begin by talking about best practice as people usually
want to be seen doing what is best.
Managing change requires persuading groups and individuals to change the way they work and to think
differently about their jobs. There are generally three levels of change.
In the social service sector, beliefs and mission play a big part in providing the purpose in the
work for staff. All enter the sector with a noble reason. But some do find that they begin to
question their purpose and reason or experience some distress when they find that their beliefs
are inconsistent with their actions in their organisations.
In such situations, what the theory of cognitive dissonance1 says is that the individuals will find
that they need to change either their actions or their beliefs. So what happens is that if the
staff believe in the organisation’s overall purpose, they will be happy to change their individual
behaviour to serve that purpose. But to feel comfortable about change and to carry it out with
enthusiasm, staff must understand the role of their actions in the future of the organisation.
We all know that it isn’t enough to tell staff that they will have to do things differently.
Anyone leading a change program must take the time to think through its "narrative" - what makes
it worth undertaking- and to explain that story to all of the people involved in making the change
happen, so that their contributions make sense to them as individuals.
We often hear that it is most difficult to change mind-sets. But it can happen when staff understand
the reason for the change and support it. Staff must have the skills to do what it requires and
see the people they respect consistently showing the new behaviour. These add up to behavioural
changes in organizations by changing attitudes about what can and should happen at work.
To sustain change in any organisation, reporting structures, management and operational processes,
and measurement procedures - setting targets, measuring performance, reward and recognition systems
– must also be consistent with the behaviour that staff are asked to demonstrate. When
an organisation’s goals for new behaviour are not reinforced, staff are less likely to
adopt it consistently. For example, if senior staff are urged to spend more time coaching junior
staff but coaching doesn’t figure in the performance appraisal, they are not likely to
do it well.
For behavioural change to be sustained, organizations that want to maintain higher performance need
to continuously ensure that the structures and processes that reinforce or condition the new
behaviour are “oiled” regularly and not assumed to be on autopilot.
If an organisation asks its staff to be ‘client-centric’ but paid little attention to the client
in the past, the staff will need to learn how to do this as they would not have any idea how
to interpret this principle and won’t know what a good outcome would look like.
How can adults then be equipped with the skills they need to make relevant changes in behaviour?
The ACTA training advises, based on Kolb’s learning style2, that adults will need time. In practice,
this means that we can’t teach everything there is to know about a subject in one session. We
need to break down the formal teaching into chunks, with time in between for the learners to
reflect, experiment, and apply the new principles. Change happens only in steps. And as the organizational
psychologist, Chris Argyris has shown, people assimilate information more thoroughly if they
go on to describe to others how they will apply what they have learned to their own circumstances.
Training or workshops can help to change behaviour by establishing personal meaning as well as
creating emotional connection between staff and the new behaviour.
In any organization, staff model their behaviour on "significant others" and these are usually those
they see in positions of influence. So we need role models at every level to “walk the talk”
so that people in different functions or levels have examples to emulate.
In implementing any change effort, it is useful to recognize assumptions as it is a bias that is
pervasive in humans and exist in the various systems we experience daily. Some of these are so
subtle that we do not know that we are being exposed to them. We may assume that what worked
will always work. For example, we often do not take into consideration the changes that have
occurred such as the changes to systems and changes to context. We tend to think that what we
see is all of what there is, like the ice berg assumption when we know that the majority of the
ice berg is below the water.
As we seek to improve services, change, which involves making delivery better for clients, will be
a norm. Sometimes the change may involve innovation and creativity, sometimes it may require
abandoning of old ways to encompass or install new ways or new behaviour. The change may start
with individuals, small groups or across the board. Whatever these may be, leaders need to be
equipped to lead change through acquiring the skills, strategising the change process and focusing
on the human dimension for change in order for it to be sustained when it happens. Change is
after all part and parcel of leadership.
1 1957 the Stanford social psychologist Leon Festinger published his theory of cognitive dissonance when he observed in the subjects of his experimentation a deep-seated need to eliminate cognitive dissonance by changing either their actions or their beliefs.
2 David Kolb, a specialist in adult learning, developed his four-phase adult-learning cycle. Kolb showed that adults can’t learn merely by listening to instructions; they must also absorb the new information, use it experimentally, and integrate it with their existing knowledge.
Director-General of Social Welfare
Ministry of Social and Family Development