Friday 25 March 2016

Change is a Leader-Employee Relationship Business

Last weekend, I facilitated a leadership team as it updated its governance model. When reviewing supplier contacts, the team validated that the executive who oversaw each supplier was the person who had the best relationship with them. "It's a relationship business," said one leader. This is true for all businesses; good relationships drive the best outcomes.

Change management is also highly influenced by relationships. Midway through my career at Cadbury, my responsibilities expanded from the US and Canada to "the Americas." Just before meeting the Mexican Leadership Team, a colleague said, "You won't add any value until after they hug you." He meant that team members needed to get to know and build trust in me before they would openly discuss their business. Before then, I was visiting on a "Royal Tour" with no tangible impact on the leaders or their business. I was hugged on my second visit.

The leader-employee relationship is essential for change to occur. How leaders are perceived by their employees is a predictor of change success. The more they are respected, trusted and liked, the greater the likelihood that people will buy into their vision of the future. If leaders are poorly viewed, their vision will be rejected, planned changes won't be adequately supported and outcomes won't be achieved.

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer study states that only 65 percent of employees trust their leaders to do "what is right." This statistic has disastrous implications for change. It implies that negative past experiences with leaders are influencing how employees perceive them and the future visions they will be asked to build.

One of the first questions I ask a leader is, "Could you tell me about past changes you led?". Mention of poor implementation and results suggests that the leader's relationship with employees is tarnished. Repairing the relationship will be a priority. 

Here are ways that leaders can build their relationships with employees through the changes they lead:

  • Speak from the average employee's perspective  address employees from their frame of reference by honestly communicating how they will be affected by change, both positively and negatively
  • Deliver on your commitments  do what you say when you say you will do it. This is a blind spot for many leaders because other priorities overshadow internal commitments. Employees always track leaders' behaviour and not following through on promises compromises credibility
  • Ask for and act on input and feedback – co-creation and ongoing feedback are fundamental change enablers. Relationships are enhanced only when decisions are made based on this information 
  • Share credit with those who did the work – An old management adage is give credit to your team and blame to yourself. Crediting those who achieved the results leads to trust, reciprocation and continued efforts to build the future
  • Take time to socialize with employees – relationships are personal and speaking with employees, including answering their questions, builds familiarity, approachability and loyalty
  • Create a link between past successes and future challenges – just as past failures can tarnish leader relationships, successes can galvanize them; success breeds success

Like all businesses, change is about relationships. The quality of relationships that leaders have with their employees directly impacts the outcomes they achieve. Like all relationships, they are built over time, earned by the actions people do and behaviours they express. Making them a priority will provide leaders with the buy-in and support they need to build a better future.