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15 Feb 2018

111. LEADING CHANGE

In the first of two articles on change, Sporting Edge’s Jeremy Snape looks at how you can help your team members embrace new processes and ideas.

All great leaders demand continuous improvements in the performance of their teams and this is often best achieved by making gradual or small changes that help them develop faster, smarter and better. If you’re a manager joining a club or organisation for the first time, though, it’s likely that implementing change will be a more urgent need. You may have been given the job based in part on your plans and promises to turn things around, and certainly how well you effect change in the short term will impact on your longevity in the organisation.

EVERYBODY ON BOARD?

Being able to implement changes successfully is a valuable skill, because change can’t be achieved through brute strength or by forcing people into compliance. Engaging early on with each individual in your team and winning their buy in, not only on what you want to do, but also why and how, is critical if you want your plans to get off the ground.

People tend to fear the unknown and unfamiliar, and change often requires people to go out of their comfort zones, put in more effort and take on new responsibilities. Much of the challenge for the leader, therefore, is convincing people to follow them through the sometimes painful process of change.

To achieve this you will need to strike a careful balance between the powerful push and pull factors of behavioural change, the strongest of the former being the desire to avoid an impending setback, loss or humiliation. In sport this may be the threat of playing a superior opposition, being judged harshly in the media or losing your contract in a round of cutbacks. This short-term ‘stick’ gets people jumping forward into change.

The pull factors, meanwhile, are the carrots, and some of the most powerful of these are the inspirational stories you give to your team. What might life be like on higher ground and what results might you be able to achieve in six months’ time once you’ve mastered this new skill or assimilated this new process? Imagine your reputation and the difference this change could make.

GROUNDWORK

Great agents of change prepare well before they put their plans into action, with all the rational data and emotionally compelling stories they need at the ready, so they can flex effortlessly between the stick and carrot.

Once people start to embrace your new ideas, you’ll notice the small improvements in their behaviour or performance and will need to praise their progress rather than the results. Hard work, learning and growth are the lifeblood of successful change programmes and when a leader creates a culture that celebrates and supports these factors the team is far more likely to take responsibility for the change process.

Dr John Coates, a neuroscientist from the University of Cambridge, suggests there are three main drivers of the stress or ‘fight or flight’ response: novelty, uncertainty and uncontrollability. If we look at these drivers from the perspective of engaging people with change we can use them to our advantage.

Novelty, for example, gives your team members a new beginning and a chance to shape their own legacy. Uncertainty calls for all skills and minds to be aligned so that you can find a way through to stability. This galvanises your team around finding a shared solution and calls for support and challenge from everyone to get there.

Finally, with uncontrollability, you need to help your team members maintain control by focusing on the things that they can affect rather than worrying and losing energy over the things that lie outside their spheres of influence. By shifting their focus away from the natural tendency towards catastrophising to the tangible short-term goals they can regain focus, confidence and commitment.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

When faced with change some people cast themselves as victims while others gain energy from the process, and the mindsets of the two groups are very different. Experience of working in elite sport and business has shown me that this is as true in the boardroom as it is in the locker room.

Those with a winning mindset have an intrinsic desire to be better or do better next time and that drives them to look for ways to change on a daily basis. They take ownership of that change and overcome the fear of failure by knowing what they will achieve once they have taken it on board.

These people have a robust bank account of confidence and self-esteem to draw from in times of uncertainty and change, and this gives them the courage to step forward into change. They don’t expect perfection when they take this first step, they expect to fight, to fail and to form new ways of working, which eventually strengthens and reinforces their ability to recover.

It is your job as a leader to help your team members adopt a winning mindset and embrace change rather than fearing it. In a world where constant change is the new normal, adaptability trumps accuracy and resilience trumps talent. The time for playing it safe has past, the future is about being bold, becoming your best and looking back with no regrets.