Change Requires a Leader’s Personal Energy

Posted by Lisa Kenney on Dec 9, 2020 11:03:02 AM

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Most of us recognize Newton’s first law of motion. In short, it tells us that all objects resist change to their state of motion, tending to “keep on keeping on.” If at rest, they stay that way. If in motion, they keep going. According to the Law, this holds true until a new external force acts upon the object, forcing it to alter its current state.

Sleep-deprived manufacturing leaders know this law all too well, as they tackle the tough job of changing employee behaviors in their facilities. Driving change for the better is part of the leader’s job description and has become a matter of health and wellness in today’s pandemic world. As we’ve learned from Newton’s Law, without an overwhelming influx of energy, the average human will “keep on doing what we’ve always done.” Effective leaders know they must input tremendous amounts of personal energy, super-human patience, and true emotion into the organization to see sustainable behavioral change.

Think about this in terms of any personal change you’ve tried to make. For example, you decide you’d like to lose a few pounds, start an exercise program, quit smoking. Without repeated attempts to break a habit, we stay stuck in our old ways. Across the world, the stakes are much higher today than simply breaking bad habits. “It’s about making sure you don’t get a phone call in the middle of the night knowing that one of your employees has gone to the hospital or has coronavirus,” one plant manager told me. His number one priority today? To keep employees safe. And, he added, “It comes with a personal price. I’d tell any leader to be ready for the backlash.”

Backlash because when leaders ask employees to change the way they do things, some employees are offended. Others are surprised by a level of CARE they’ve never experienced first-hand from a leader before. Regardless of the reaction spectrum, leaders need to remember the First Law. If they leave individuals to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about what’s safe, very little will change. Everyone will “keep on keeping on.” This is not a negative commentary on the human condition, it is the reality of any change process. Because we are creatures of habit and forgetfulness, it falls to leadership to become a “new force” to help change course.

This new force is anything but forceful. Instead, it is steady, predictable, planned, and consistent. Of course, we can witness short bursts of change with “do this or else,” and “because I said so.” But effective leaders know this type of my-way-or-the-highway tactic rarely brings about lasting change. Let’s look now at four key elements that any positive push for change needs to include.

Human nature finds us quickly reverting to old habits without a strong will to change, the skill to change, necessary coaching and support, and a reward for changing. Leaders who need to drive lasting behavioral change know that if just one of these key elements is missing, employees will be stuck. They may change temporarily, but not for long.

While keeping Newton’s First Law in mind, let’s examine each of these four points.

Will to Change

Leadership creates the will through their own personal determined energy, clear and consistent messages, a cadre of front-line supporters, and a diligence to the cause. The degree to which they care about the employees and the business influences the will factor.    

Because the will to change will be different for every employee, it’s up to leadership to create the will to change through convincing, consistent messaging that may feel like a broken record at times. It is up to the leaders of the organization, from the top brass to the front-line supervisors to the team leads to consistently walk the talk; to listen to employees concerns and act on them. The leaders should clearly and specifically articulate their own personal will to change early on in any change process; in other words, they need to personally tell as many employees as possible why they personally believe these changes are truly necessary.

With transparent, face-to-face communication, leaders help constituents understand WHY the change is truly necessary. The effective leader also puts the “why” along with the “how” into written statements that he/she stands behind in thought, word, and action. The leadership team surrounds itself with individuals from across the organization who align with the new ways without hesitation or inconsistency. When members of the leadership team find one another acting in inconsistent ways to which they’ve all agreed, they call each other out and talk through these inconsistencies until intentions become reality. They share stories of success that motivate and build visions in employees’ minds of how it can be better when everyone is on board. If key leaders are not infused with the intense energy required to change people’s behaviors, and they shy away from the conflict or “backlash” that may transpire, the change process remains underpowered.

Skill to Change

In addition to consistent messaging, employees also need training in the new practices. Change leaders provide the necessary training, never leaving it up to chance that people will know what to do and how to it. Remember, this is a change. Great leaders provide not only information to read, messages to listen to, but also demonstrations on the right and wrong way. They provide opportunities for employees to practice the new behaviors and receive feedback. They provide accountability reminders so that the ever-present human factor, forgetfulness, has trouble taking hold. There is a right way to wear a face mask and many other risky ways that could result in infections. What will front-line supervisors do differently? How will they, through their own behaviors, demonstrate the right way?  

Coaching for Accountability

Coaching is handled through communication and feedback. This is why a majority of the best companies begin every shift, every meeting, every small gathering, with a safety tip. We are creatures of habit! We need constant reminders to provide the influx of new energy that will drive the change forward. Consistent messaging and feedback from executives, supervisors, team leads, mentors and fellow operators increases energy toward the change. Knowing that your co-workers are going to be watching your behaviors and giving you feedback each week motivates you to make the changes you’ve all committed to. If necessary, use outside professionals to coach and act as accountability partners. Many an IMEC client confesses that simply because they knew we would be on site to check in, they felt accountable to dig back into the new tools and sharpen up their application.

Finally, the reward.

With all this energy going into the work of change, we may forget about reward. Leaders who want sustained change reward employees along the way. They reward themselves and each other. With an eye on the change, keep rewards simple but consistent. You’ve heard the phrase “catch ‘em doing something right”? A simple “thank you,” “way to go,” “you’re doing great,” can go a long way to making a tired team feel good. Reward is very personal, so ask employees what celebration would look like for them. Ask early and ask often.  

In short, it’s important to know at the outset of any change - even something as small and straight forward as how to wear a face mask – that this will require a leader’s enormous push up the hill with personal energy that may try your patience and cause a few sleepless nights. Remember to check the change plan and process for the four elements – will, skill, coaching, and reward -- to make sure all essentials are included. As any leader who has undergone the intense internal and emotional pressure required to reach the other side can attest, it will be well worth the effort. The “keeping on” will have changed to a new, better way of doing things, providing safer, sustainable practices for everyone involved.

Lisa Kenney

Written by Lisa Kenney

Topics: employee engagement, manufacturing, workforce, workforce development, Leadership, change management, Leadership Development, COVID-19

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