Being a better change leader: Interview with Dr. Barbara Trautlein

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Millions of words have been written about how to improve the way we handle change in business, and yet, despite lots of great advice and methods out there, we still have a lot of problems in doing it. Are we maybe attacking the problem in the wrong way?

Dr Barbara Trautlein, principal of Change Catalyst, thinks so. In this PEX Network interview, Dr. Trautlein says she thinks that too often we focus on those who we perceive as resisting change when instead we should be looking at our own way of promoting change. Here she describes why and how you can be a better change leading.

This is a transcript of a recent podcast. To listen to the original podcast, go here: Think people are resisting change? It might be your fault!

Please note: this transcript has been edited for readability.

PEX Network: Business bookshelves are full of all sorts of advice about why people resist change and how we can manage change better. Yet, for the most part, we still seem to do change badly. Do you agree and if so, why do you think that is?

Barbara Trautlein: I absolutely agree. McKinsey and others have done research on change management and success and failure rates. According to them, up to 70% of major organizational change fails. So you can imagine the loss of trust, the cynicism, the impact on the customers, and the return on investment for organizations. The needle has not moved on that statistic in decades; it is still hovering right at 70%. So what can we do about that?

We have a lot of knowledge about change management. There are thousands of books on the subject. However, I think our focus is usually in two areas.

First, we focus on the process of change. There are many change management models, methods, and tools. We have a very full toolkit to manage change: readiness assessments, stakeholder engagement, communication plans.

Second, we also have a lot of knowledge about the targets of change -the people impacted by the change. We have Who Moved My Cheese?, for example, which helps people understand their own change readiness and change friendliness.

However, what’s missing is the information, tools and resources for change leaders to understand themselves.

Too often we focus on overcoming resistance to change. That’s looking at other people and getting frustrated: why aren’t they changing? Change leaders feel like they’re pushing the string, and it’s extremely frustrating and it’s exhausting.

However, I feel that if we turn the lens back on ourselves as change leaders, then we would have a lot better diagnosis of why so many changes are failing, why they’re derailing. We’d then have specific tools and actions that are targeted that we can use to turn things around and do things differently.

PEX Network: I think that’s a really interesting point; it is quite easy to point the fingers at others and say that they’re the problem, when actually it could come down to our own style and the way we communicate. What would you say are some of the common things that change leaders get wrong?

Barbara Trautlein: What change leaders often see as resistance is really that people don’t get it [the change], want it, and they’re not able to do it. That’s a failure of change leadership: we haven’t painted that picture for people in terms of where we’re going, what is the vision, what are the goals, and what are the objectives? We haven’t really dealt with people’s fears and insecurities, and we haven’t given them the reason to buy in and be engaged with the change.

Even when people get it and they want it, they’re just not able to do it, because so often we haven’t given them the tools, the training and the resources, or we haven’t overcome the barriers to help them do it.

A lot of the times change - major changes in particular - are advocated from the top of the organization. Top management obviously sees the rationale for the change most - they’re most connected with what’s going on in the external environment, the competitive situation, the markets, regulations, customers, etc. They see all that so they feel the need for the change at a very visceral level.

However, the top tends to be the most isolated from the impacts of the changes throughout the organization. Therefore, people at the bottom seem most resistant because they’re the ones whose behavior must change as a significant part of the transformation process. They’re resistant because they just haven’t been brought along to get it.

Then the people in the middle - supervisors, managers and directors in the middle of the organization - are squeezed. They’re what I call the baloney in the sandwich, because they get the edicts from above and they get the push-back and the resistance from below. Oftentimes, the senior leaders have not given them the tools and the information to really understand the reason for the change and be able to translate that message to the people that report to them. So we get a lot of frustration.

Senior leaders can be frustrated that we’re not making changes quickly enough and we’re not moving with velocity. At the middle, they can just be confused and, again, feel disempowered and frustrated themselves. At the bottom they are resistant and often fearful.

Again, a lot of the time it is our mindset as a change leader can feel like we’re doing something to others or against them or even in spite of them to force the change instead of with and for them. As I said, that’s a very exhausting kind of mindset and comes from when we look at it. And so, if we can just change our perspective to look within first and see what our strengths and what are we dropping out of the change process as a leader, we’ll often have a much clearer way forward.

PEX Network: You say – and you’ve written a book about this - that there are three different dominant styles that change leaders usually exhibit. What are they?

Barbara Trautlein: I’ve written a book - Change Intelligence - and it is for change leaders to develop their change intelligence or CQ. The way I define CQ is that it’s the ability to be aware of one’s own change leader style and then to adapt it to be more effective across a variety of people and situations. Again, it’s talking about looking within first and really empowering and equipping change leaders themselves.

The three dominant styles that I’ve encountered in my 25 years of coaching change leaders are the following: people lead either from the head, the heart or the hand. So that leads to people getting it, wanting it and being able to do it.

When you lead change from the heart you really have people on the radar screen. You’re a very engaging, motivating and supportive coach. However, any strength overdone can be a weakness, and every strength has its blind spot. So if you lead from the heart, sometimes you can overdo that and you can sub-optimise your expectations of people. As a result you don’t hold them accountable to the extent that’s necessary for them to really stretch themselves and grow and change with the mandated changes. Sometimes you can have the blind spots of focusing so much on working with the people that you can lose sight of the overall goals.

The second style, leading from the head, is focused very strongly on the goals. They’re the strategists, the futurists. They get very excited and motivated by scanning the horizon for the new trends and bringing them back to the organization. They can be inspirational in communicating their vision for the future. However, a lot of the time, with their zeal to move forward towards future visions and new horizons, they can look around and look behind them and realize nobody is left around them. Sometimes they forget about the people side of things; they forget about sharing their vision in a way that people really get it and understand it.

The last style is leading change with the hand. So the head style can also forget to show people how to get from here to there, and that’s what the hands are great at. So those who lead change from the hands are very tactical. They’re great project managers as they love handling the details, the accountabilities, and the milestones to get us from here to there. They help make change real and help execute and make it stick.

However, at times they can lose the forest for the trees and they can focus on executing a plan that no longer is viable or makes complete sense. As they are flexible, they can also overstep people’s emotions and the need for a positive team dynamic or an engaged culture.

So those are the three dominant styles that I see: leading from the heart, leading from the head, and leading from the hands.

PEX Network: Once somebody knows what type of change leader they are, how does that actually help them lead change?

Barbara Trautlein: Of course, some people are of a pure style: they lead from the heart, head or hands. But many of us are combinations. So, for example, I’m a Champion style: I lead from the head and the heart. I see where we want to go and I’m very motivated to help people get there. Some folks are more Driver style; they lead from the head and the hands, so they see the goal and they really want to move towards it in a very planned-for way, with a sense of urgency. The folks who lead from the heart and the hands are the Facilitators; they really love to be in the trenches, holding people’s hands, really facilitating the change process. Then some people are Adaptors, which is a combination of all three; they have savvy in using head, heart and hands to move the change process forward.

However, people ask me, as you just did, how does this help us? Is the point to change our style as a change leader and, for example, have us all be Adaptors, moderate on all three? The point is not to have us change our style but to adapt it - not by becoming Adaptors but to adapt our style, to make it more effective. Because, of course, the old adage, you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

If I was a Champion, head and heart style, am always motivating, rah-rah cheerleader at working with all clients, I’m not going to do the opposite of my strength, which is the hands, which is the execution. I’m going to drop out the details, I’m going to drop out the planning, so what can I do? The point is not to change myself any more than we can fundamentally change others.

So I can build muscle in areas where I am weak, so I can do things like take project management classes, learn how to manage an Excel spreadsheet, that sort of thing. Also, I can partner with others where I’m weak or in areas that I just don’t enjoy. My favorite co-facilitator is a very strong executor who is very strong on that "hand" leadership style. He loves those multicolored spreadsheets with many tabs, and he always has this checklist and makes it work.

The point, again, is this: what can we do when we know our style? We can moderate our strengths so we’re not overdoing it and therefore turning people off. Sometimes in change it’s not that they don’t like it or get it; it’s that they don’t like you. That could be because sometimes we’re overdoing our strengths.

We can develop our blind spots or things that we tend to miss out, build some new muscles, or we can partner with others in areas that we just don’t enjoy or that we don’t have as much skill in.

PEX Network: What’s your single best piece of advice for becoming a more effective change leader?

Barbara Trautlein: When I started out 25 years ago people might be accountable to manage one change at a time. It was a long-term process. Now we’re in a situation where the scope of changes are increasing and the complexity and the pace are dizzying. We’re juggling so many things at once.

Actually, my advice is to know yourself. In order to do that, you need to make time for intentional reflection. So often we’re going from one thing to another, one change to another, one assignment to another, one meeting to another. We don’t sit back and reflect on who we are - what is my style, what are my strengths, what are my blind spots - so that we can develop and do better.

There are lots of layers to the onion of failed change, but a portion of that is leadership and what we’re doing and not doing effectively. The only way we can turn that around is really to know ourselves and to make time to intentionally develop ourselves.

Sit back and do a diagnosis of your past projects, ones that went well, ones that sub-optimised, ones that failed outright. Then ask: what did I do, what could I have done differently, what did I do well. Do that that intentional analysis and really reflect. Make a list of your developmental goals and share it with colleagues so that you can get feedback, and you can have partners along the way. That builds trust, builds relationships, and it demonstrates your vulnerability and your commitment to improve. That can only facilitate the changes that you’re leading, moving forward.

So that would be my single piece of advice: to know thyself and to do that through carving out time for intentional reflection.