Engaging leaders in change - even when it doesn't benefit them

It's tricky getting the C-suite on HR's side – here's how to speak the language of the boardroom

Engaging leaders in change - even when it doesn't benefit them

There’s a big difference between those who want change and those willing to change – especially if you don’t benefit from it. Organizational change can be scary for both the employer and the employees, with HR leaders often acting as the face of any major upheavals. Oftentimes, when HR teams approach the C-suite with suggested changes, initiative launches or new investments, they’re met with hesitancy – after all, even the Boardroom can be wary of embracing new ways of work. 

So how can we, as HR leaders, inspire change in an organization and get the C-suite on our side – even when it doesn’t necessarily benefit them?

“Change is a process, and it can take time to get senior management and executives on board,” Susan Sadler, founder and CEO of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions and President and South Australian Councillor of the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), said. “Reluctance to change is often about will and motivation – they must want the change. To do that, human resource practitioners need to appeal to both their hearts and minds.

“The starting point is developing an awareness of the need for change, followed closely by creating a desire to participate in and support the change. Developing awareness is sharing knowledge and information and is based in reason and logic. The desire to be involved is about how they feel about the project. Apply the ‘what’s in it for me’ process to the manager, what you know about their personality and motivations at work and align your pitch appropriately.”

Communicating the process of change within a company is almost as important as the change itself. A lot of management decisions are made behind closed doors and information leaks out. Having a clear communications policy in place with a structured timetable can assist greatly in transparency.

“A barrier to getting leadership support can be reluctance about the management of the change process, not a disagreement about the benefit of change,” Sadler said. “It is important for HR to research and analyse the specific change initiative in order to be able to articulate a clear action plan for leaders which details the stages, timeframes, key actions and outcomes. Each stage should also include an assessment of risk and potential mitigating strategies.

“The policies that a company can have in place that will support a human resources practitioner in engaging and building the confidence of leaders include risk assessment frameworks, change management models and consultation processes.”

The hardest part overall is convincing those leaders who aren’t going to benefit from the process one iota. If they don’t buy into the program, they can influence their peers and subordinates and it can have a negative effect. Not everyone is always going to benefit from changes in a company so it important that you can communicate the big picture effect.

“Highlighting positive outcomes can motivate the leader to support the change through a desire to have positive outcomes attributed or associated with themselves,” Sadler added. “The benefit to the leader is therefore an indirect consequence of other positive outcomes. This is often a more useful method of framing the change concept than highlighting a threat - the consequence of not implementing the change - which can result in the leader focusing on the potential loss, burying their heads and triggering a ‘flight’ response.”

Another key aspect is to ensure that the change makes sense for leaders and employees to understand and that there aren’t divisions within the organisation who won’t support it from the outset.

“The project needs to be sensible, clearly beneficial and take peoples careers and views into account,” Aidan Campbell, lead consultant at Taylor Wells said.  “If the project is designed to engage people, boost profit and help people grow their careers - it is likely to get support.”

Campbell believes it is critical for human resources and key leaders to be working together for any change program to be successfully implemented.

“Human resources should not be running in a different direction to the business,” Campbell added. “So often they’re engaged in almost war like scenarios with company leaders. Everyone needs to be pushing in the same direction - and HR needs to be a key integrated part of the corporate strategy.

“Once a strategy is in place, HR has a vital role in recruiting, training and resourcing the teams as needed. They need to push in same direction. If all pushing in same direction - and supporting company strategy - leadership support will be a given.”

If organisational change can be communicated clearly and purposely from the outset with transparency from all divisions, it can become ingrained within the business quicker than originally planned and with the support of leaders who may not personally benefit but see the overall greater good.

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