April 22, 2022
Jennifer was at the ballet the other day, watching Acosta Danza, and there was a dance with ropes. In the movement of the relationship of the dancers, the mood, the emotion were all defined using the rope. It was very beautiful. Then towards the end the ropes were taken away and everything changed – the performers were liberated, unconstrained. At first like a frenzy, but then the dancers started to gel together letting go of the need for the rope. And this got her thinking about the role of constraint in leading change, especially in the new era of hybrid working.
What are the constraints, the “ropes”, of organisational change? They are a mix of the internal and external, the hard and soft – covering everything from industry regulation through to layers of company policy and customary practice, but what’s being constrained? And what happens when they don’t exist anymore? What’s the impact on people tasked with leading change?
Like the dancers, it changes our relationships, our mood and our feel of the change.
Jennifer was recently asked: “What is really needed from leaders with a responsibility for organisational development – what are the skills and aptitudes they need?” The questioner understood how to lead for a specific change – in this case using the ABChange approach – but what skills do leaders in their organisation need to develop to cope with the ever growing, hot mess, of the current environment – particularly when it comes to hybrid working?
How we show up on screen has changed from being superficial to a critical competence for human connection. Video technology has changed the social and aural cues we give and receive from each other.
We can see each other on-line, but we’re still learning to feel each other. With the ‘phone we became skilled over time at paying attention to the physical cues present in the voice. With the advent of video image, it might be we’ve moved backwards in terms of our attention to embodied cues – we are distracted by the visual and wind up paying less attention potentially, than we might if we were face to face.
Workplaces have stumbled into this new video-mediated, hybrid working world – often too busy to step back and look at what the practical implications are for managers and employees, preferring instead to hanker after some return to something like the old days or assume that the technology can be deployed without attention to the social norms that will make it a heaven or hell (or somewhere in between).
What can be done?
The first thing to be done is let go of any fantasy that there is some model, roped in, answer out there – we are at a time of experimentation and flux; where what will work for specific groups in specific situations will emerge over time, with managers having to let go of the need to provide expert solutions.
We came to the conclusion that an agile mindset was needed, not just in terms of being flexible in ‘doing change’ but in one’s orientation to people and their moods and feelings and how what was going on in the world shaped their emotional world.
This means, first off, accepting that as leaders, we cannot be the ‘gurus of all information.’ Leaders need to step out from thinking that they as an individual are the universal expert.
Instead what is needed is a team of people who are not only experts in their professional workplace practice, but also understand the pulse of what is happening in their teams and are aware of the impact of what is going on in the world may be having on their teams – taking notice of how events from war to police brutality may be shaping the feelings and energies people may be bringing into the workplace. And then it is about being able to adjust what is going on in the business to fit the changing emotional landscape of the world.
Social isolation is not something managers have felt to be part of their responsibility
Social isolation is not something managers have felt to be part of their responsibility. However good or bad, coming into an office or workplace gave people a visceral experience of social connection, of belonging to a community – which is an essential need for the social mammal that we are. Without that sense of connection, people will usually suffer psychologically and, from an organisational perspective, measures such as reported loyalty, trust and commitment may take a hit.
The focus on hybrid working means managers will now have to learn how to pay attention to experiences such as loneliness and isolation to a much greater extent than they have historically, which is not something many will feel equipped for.
But how can we know what is having an impact on teams and individuals? What is constraining their liveliness? It’s not just a matter of asking people, although that’s often an overlooked first step, it’s also about noticing what people are NOT saying as much as what they are saying. It’s about lifting our heads as leaders up from just thinking about the next things on our To-Do list and really seeing what is being shared with us – reading the liveliness in the room, be that on or off line.
Even the least socially skilled manager or employee is wired to pick up what others are experiencing when people are physically together, although whether they choose to act on what they’re picking up is another matter. In the online world people need to pay much closer attention to the cues that people are giving each other – or to become more explicit in stating what is going on for them, much as in a phone call people may ask others to say what their silence means when there is a pause in the conversation.
We all have ropes that shape our organisational life – and new ropes are always appearing as new things happen in the world. How we show up in the virtual world as part of a hybrid working culture is a critical competence for modern human connection, much as learning to read became a competence when the printing press made the written word widely available. It requires different skills and a willingness to pay attention to inter-personal habits that most of us have been able to take for granted for much of our lives.
To be a leader of change means learning how to tap into the collective experience of these ropes/constraints – and finding a way for people to step beyond them and into the relationships that give them the energy to embrace change. This includes setting boundaries, creating spaces and clearly illustrating listening techniques to help create the social interaction we all crave.
Jennifer Bryan is a Director, published author, speaker and expert in the people side of leading change and has worked with nearly 40 different organisations across multiple industries. She has partnered with Henley Business School of Management and presented at Women in Technology, Association of Change Management Professionals Global Conference and World Institute of Action Learning Global Conference, to name a few. She has created a unique leading change framework, the ABChange Model, and uses her commercial insight to help lead people in change. Jennifer is author of Leading People in Change – A practical guide.
John Higgins is a widely published researcher and writer about the overlooked and taken-for-granted in all aspects of organisational life. His work has appeared in the Harvard Business Review and the Sloan Management Review, as well as on the Brene Brown show. He can be found via www.johnhigginsresearch.com
Main image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians