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Posted by on Jan 3, 2014

Make Peace with Change and Focus on Building Resilience

frog looking out of potManagement Concepts recently identified 5 Essential NEW Leadership Habits for Federal Leaders. The second item on that list is “Make peace with change and focus on building resilience.”

It was not so very long ago that many people in organizations sought to minimize risk, preserve the status quo and even get by until retirement. That strategy worked, in a sense, so long as the going was good.

Today, it is a very different story. Beset with change, disruption, technological and social transformation, and rising demands for results, practically all organizations are scrambling to stay relevant, valuable and in front of the latest wave breaking on their shores.

Given the fundamentally changing terrain on which organizations now operate, a new personal ethos around change, adaptation, innovation and risk is arising. That ethos is uncomfortable, sometimes destabilizing, fraught with danger, and requires a lot more energy. But, it is here to stay.

So what are leaders supposed to do?

One way of understanding the new requirements for leaders to adapt and shift long-standing and  comfortable habits is to observe the tone of today’s “success literature” – all the books, articles and businesses that seek to help people succeed. The messages in this genre have shifted from something like a “get rich quick – the world is your oyster with unlimited possibilities” theme to today’s message, which runs more along the lines of “Failure is inevitable when you’re trying to do anything big. Learn from it and keep going.”

How many times have we heard about the number of Edison’s failed attempts before inventing the light bulb?

Federal leaders face two big problems when encountering the new normal … We will address both, and what you can do about them. The bonus is that in addressing these problems, there is the potential to build leadership capacity in your organization, and strengthen relationships with your team …

Problem: Gradual Problems that Build-Up Over Time
The first problem runs along the lines of “I made my bones coming up the way I did.” This translates as a leader having a sense of how things work, what works, and therefore what should be. As human beings, it is so comfortable to rely on what we have learned through experience. I sometimes say, “Oh, protect us from the things we learn.”

The long-term perils of such thinking are fairly obvious. In systems thinking, it’s called “the boiled frog” syndrome. If you put a frog in hot water, it will hop out immediately. But if you put a frog in room temperature water and very slowly increase the heat – well, it’s going to be frog legs for dinner. Unfortunately, you are the boiled frog in this situation if you are failing to gather opinions from staff down the org chart. Especially, staff who could alert you to the gradual changes you may not be aware of.

There is a large body of work now around how organizations are slow or even unable to detect changes that are “low and slow” versus immediate, shock-type events. So they keep on keeping on in what is sometimes called fighting last year’s war.

Solution: Leverage the knowledge of your team to detect gradual change early
It is hard to hear, but the fact is potentially the most important and valuable information can come from those with whom we disagree the most. It’s nice to be told “you’re right” all the time, but it doesn’t challenge any assumptions or flush out emergent or contrary information.
Here’s the practice I get federal leaders into that helps them improve their game. Get into the habit of describing the  terrain – how you think things look – and then say “Here’s what I think and here’s why I think it.” Then ask for other perspectives.

This invites the information one may have missed, dismissed or not wanted to acknowledge.
Remember, the one thing we know for sure is that change is going to happen, so let’s get good radar, from multiple perspectives, to detect that.

Problem: Making Quick Decisions
The second challenge relates to psychological type. If you’ve done the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator you may remember the last letter pair, J or P, stands for Judging or Perceiving, and describes our preference for dealing with the outer world.

Judgers prefer closure, while Perceivers prefer to explore options longer. Of course, we need both in life, and there are times when the situation calls for one or the other. The problem is that we may act out of our preference, regardless of the needs of the moment.

The vast majority of leaders have a last letter of J, which means absent a conscious overriding of the preference, they will tend more toward making decisions than continuing to explore possibilities. No one can argue with making decisions and getting on with things, particularly when it’s busy – and when is it not?

The problem is that the judgments are often based on the past. This information is already encoded in long-term memory, freely available and not requiring a lot of conscious processing to access.

By contrast, to really dig in and figure out what’s new, different, unexpected or surprising takes a lot of mental resources (in the processor-intensive prefrontal cortex) and busy leaders sometimes pull the ripcord too fast and make decisions before they have good-enough information.

You have probably experienced a time when a bad decision was made for these reasons, and you have then heard, “We don’t have time to rehash or go over all that. It’s done.”

The Solution: Slow-down and Include Others in the Decision-Making Process
Ask team members what other options and information are out there under the surface. Invite contrary perspectives. Ask the team what their confidence or comfort level is with a  proposed decison. Often, accessing emotion can surface substantive issues, with people feeling uneasy or anxious about the direction. Ask them, “Are we ready? What are we missing?” Give them a voice.

Here’s the bonus: By engaging teams or direct reports in these processes, they see modeled adaptive, responsive ways to manage change and disruption. Just by witnessing the moves, they start to build capacity to weather the coming storms. With leadership competencies increasingly emphasizing things like ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty, resilience, adaptability and working with incomplete information, these behaviors prepare people to step up.

And it gets better: By directly engaging people in the conversations around point of view, feelings, and ideas, they also build cognitive capacity and flex their leadership muscles. This experience allows them to step further into something we could safely call leadership. Given that many leadership development models state that leaders need to build future leaders in their ranks, you’re actually accomplishing quite a lot by doing these things.

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