If you’re going to lead a change, John Kotter’s eight steps are a pretty safe bet. If you’re trying to build your organization’s overall ability to change and adapt quickly, I wouldn’t recommend training all staff in this philosophy. There are three main flaws in Kotter’s eight steps for leading change.
Kotter’s model embeds the mindset that change is a one-time event, a process that must be meticulously managed and promises stability at its end. If we’ve learned anything over these last three years marked by global uncertainty, it’s that maybe life won’t “return to normal.”
It promotes the idea that real change can only come from the C-suite. This approach makes it easy for employees to lose trust and credibility as leaders make changes to the change they’ve just touted as the most significant in the company’s history.
It forces employees to be objects of change, futile pawns vulnerable to the decisions made to protect the King and Queen. Employee stress increases as their control of their lives decreases. We’ve heard many executives tell us that, during a major change, employees “turtle;” they retreat into their shells and try not to be noticed in order to “survive” the change.
This final flaw is the most damaging because by driving employee buy-in for one change, you may actually be undermining your company’s longer-term ability to evolve and compete.
Unfair Pressure on Change Leaders
Think about it. The 8-step model puts enormous pressure on leaders and managers, but doesn’t ask for much of employees. Managers are expected to ease fears, have all the answers, be expert communicators, and manage talent. Employees are expected to follow along.
How can managers and leaders possibly know the full implications of a change initiative or the full potential of employees to spot opportunities to change that which is in their span of control? Kotter’s focus on buy-in and following leadership direction can lead to “learned helplessness” of employees, whereby they don’t think for themselves and become over-reliant on others telling them what to do.
Employees in the Driver’s Seat
What if we invited our employees to take more control of change needed to transform our company? What if the comms team helped them to determine how they can affect the change? What if communicators provided them with the very same context that executives use to determine strategy to guide their decisions?
Comms teams can alter communications strategies to help employees be “drivers,” not objects of change. They can support leadership communication that empowers employees, connect employees to relevant peers and mentors to learn new ways of working, and share information to help employees see the bigger picture.
Drop the Word “Change” from Your Lexicon
Employees are your company’s greatest asset…or at least they should be. You hired them, you are paying them, now it’s time that you expect them to not tacitly or begrudgingly buy-in to change, but to drop the fears, assumptions, and feelings of helplessness associated with change.
A first step might be dropping the word “change” from the corporate lexicon. I don’t mean replace it with a synonym like transformation. I mean let it be known that, guided by your corporate mission and vision, your company will be constantly evolving, never sitting still. This will require that everyone get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Ultimately, Kotter’s model and what we’ve learned about change management in working with CEB’s network of comms professionals are not entirely at odds: what if you following Kotter’s approach to gain buy-in to the concept of agility among your staff?
Imagine an 8-step campaign that “institutionalizes the change”…of change.