Why Organizational Improvement Programs Don’t Work
Organizations are continually looking for ways to be more effective. Organizational improvement programs go by many different names—workforce improvement, productivity enhancement, and organizational effectiveness, to name a few. For government organizations, improving effectiveness usually means finding more efficient and cost-effective ways to meet the mission.
Programs like this typically don’t “stick.” Sometimes new ways of doing things result in short-term improvements. Other times, the changes are piecemeal; some people embrace the change, while others don’t. Either way, people usually revert back to the old, more comfortable way of doing things. Why does this happen? Is there any way to create lasting change?
When it comes down to it, organizational improvement is really individual improvement. Change happens when individuals start doing things differently. Lasting change happens when those changes become permanent. So, the following must happen in order for lasting change to occur:
- Individuals must be aware that a change is needed
- They must know what old behaviors to rely on less and what new behaviors to rely on more
- They must be motivated to maintain the resulting changes in their behavior
Let’s look specifically at leader behavior because leaders are often highly visible and influential; they also serve as role models for expected behaviors in organizations.
- Make leaders understand what they need to do differently can be done by making a nonthreatening case for change. We know from neuroscience research that it’s pretty easy to stimulate a flight-or-fight Organizational improvement programs may stimulate that response if they refer to how the program is going to “address weaknesses,” “reduce errors,” or “evaluate” how someone is doing their job. In contrast, focusing on how the leader can have a more effective impact on his or her team may be a less threatening approach. The idea is more than semantics—the focus is not on “fixing” the leader, but instead on showing the leader how their behavior impacts their team’s effectiveness.
The leader must buy-in to any new approach because they are the one that will ultimately have to make a change. They aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong; in fact, they usually have good intentions. It’s that leaders aren’t always aware that the impact they are having on their team is different from what they intended. And, what the team needs from the leader may vary from team to team.
- Show the leader what behaviors to use less and which to use more, and, even more importantly, show how changes in those behaviors will impact their team. It’s not enough to just tell leaders to do more of one thing or less of another. Show them how making those changes will impact their team to be more effective. Again, it’s not necessarily that the leader is doing the wrong thing; instead, the leader may need to rely less on certain strategies and more on others.
- Maintain the leader’s changed behavior by providing the right motivation. This can be done in many different ways—link their team’s improved effectiveness to the organization’s mission and goals, provide ongoing feedback and coaching to the leader, make sure the leader gets the opportunity to build new skills to better carry out the new behaviors if needed, and reward and recognize their accomplishments and improvements.
Tools exist for measuring expected behaviors in organizations as well as a leader’s behaviors and the impact of those behaviors on their team. The next time you start down the organizational improvement path, remember to ask yourself how individuals will be able to learn a new behavior, skill, or technique that will help the organization function more effectively!