Opinion – The human dimension plays an essential role in organizational change initiatives

The 2002 book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” seems to permeate every trending discussion I’ve been following lately. In his description of the book, Paul Arnold writes that “many of life’s defining moments stem from crucial conversations because they create meaningful shifts in attitude and behavior.”

Critical conversations are an integral part of our world and have a huge impact on organizational learning and growth. Unsurprisingly, authors Kerry Patterson and her three VitalSmarts co-founders say their book deals with situations where “opinions vary, the stakes are high, and the emotions run high.”

It is therefore fair to conclude that crucial conversations also translate into more familiar difficult conversations; they challenge, frustrate, confuse, frighten, or annoy talkers. But in all of these outcomes, it’s important to remember that conversations can have a profound effect on life.

It’s a proven fact that successful relationships, careers, organizations, and communities share the same strength to speak openly about high-stakes, emotional, and controversial topics. For this reason, I have found the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) series on Your Brain at Work not only an eye-opener but also a useful guide for those working in organizational change.

One of the NLI’s programs, for example, looked at the high failure rate of organizational change initiatives. Generous budgetary allocations, energy and manpower seem to have repeatedly failed to bring about the desired change. It’s worth noting that Rachel Cardero, Ryan Curl and Mary Toomey of the NLI referenced their research which found that 70% of employees say the latest change initiative failed to achieve its goals.

Additionally, 65% of the surveyed population indicated that their organizations had not achieved a higher degree of effectiveness after the change attempts.

Closely related to this finding, 68% of respondents say they did not work more effectively after the change effort.

The three NLI researchers and consultants agreed that change initiatives fail because they do not clearly articulate their goals, fail to put people first, and fail to promote effective behavior change. The research is scathing about organizations looking to implement change without indicating what successful action will look like.

They advise organizations to guard against the illusion of transparency, that is, the assumption that every employee will somehow know the intended results of the change initiative. Rather than seeking protection in incomplete conversations, NLI says organizations need to bring employees to a place of psychological safety, a place where people share meaningful discussions about important issues. Psychological safety also allows people to thrive in discomfort because organizations have clearly articulated the dichotomy between threat and positive future. The Institute concludes that “change initiatives do not necessarily fail because they are complex; they falter because they’re often not designed with the human brain in mind.

Additionally, the NLI states that change must introduce employees to the priorities, habits, and systems needed to support the change initiative. Alternatively, organizations should keep in mind that quality conversations build engagement, grow others, and improve performance. Therefore, flexibility and empathy also play an important role in illuminating the reasons for change.

Writing on The Art of Conversation, John Armstrong of the University of Melbourne is persuasive when he notes that “the traditions of law, science and scholarship, and even politics” tend to “put the argument first”. Armstrong’s response is that “while an argument takes precedence in a debate, in a conversation the person comes first.”

Author Marlene Chism argues that “the meaning of communication is the response it elicits, not the intention.” I can only add that crucial, vital, or critical conversations need to be handled appropriately to prevent poison, drivel, and unfortunate misrepresentations from ruining trust.

2022-11-18 Laurent Kamwi

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