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31 Leadership Behaviours and Actions that Influence Organisational Change

In this blog post, we look at the practical leadership behaviours and actions that influence whether a major change within an organisation is successful. The overview list below is intended as a ‘menu’, where organisations and leaders pick and choose those leadership actions and behaviours that are most helpful to them either to support specific elements of their strategy or to close acknowledged gaps or weaknesses.

The menu is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and more items could be added. What we can say with confidence is that, if a critical mass of leaders displays the suggested behaviours at ‘Level 3 (Commitment)’, then that organisation’s chances of ‘Change’ success improves significantly.

As a brief aside, at Mission we distinguish 3 Leadership Commitment Levels:
1) Lipservice Commitment,
2) Conditional Commitment – where the commitment to act is there but it crumbles in the face of opposition and obstacles and is done ‘time permitting’
3) Unconditional or Inspirational Commitment – this is where a leader continues to ‘do the right things’ even if he has something personal at stake or runs the risk of paying a price or ‘cost’ in terms of time, relationships, prospects, finances, perks etc. ‘Level 3’ can require a degree of selflessness and moral courage but, if done well, can be inspirational and create high levels of trust and followship. Think of the best leaders you have come across, either personally or in public life; they invariably operated at Level 3.

30 Behaviours and Actions

1. Leaders build trust and rapport by spending time with and by showing authentic interest in their people (their values, aspirations, needs, wants, fears, feelings etc) and allowing them to get to know the leader

If leaders want to change behaviour they need to understand what drives it in people.

2. Leaders take a stand for their people, especially when they need protection or when fair and equitable treatment is in danger, when this is the right thing to do

If leaders are not prepared to take a stand, then people will not have much loyalty beyond themselves. Leaders who do take a stand, especially when this is personally costly or risky, will be seen as morally courageous.

3. Leaders tell a compelling change story that caters and appeals to their people’s very different motivations, rather than a single ‘this is vital for the company’ reason for change

A leader needs to put across more than just the rational side of why a change is needed or is beneficial. People are motivated by very different things e.g. making people’s lives better, innovation, improving processes, by winning, by results, by learning, by impacts on society, on their team etc

4. The change stories or Vision and strategy need to be repeatedly told. It must be an ongoing dialogue, which can now be done with the help of Social Media

A strategy or change story needs to be repeatedly told to move people beyond ‘awareness’ to understanding and acceptance. Research shows that people consistently overestimate the extent to which others share their views and beliefs (this is known as the ‘false-consensus effect’)

5. Leaders let people develop their own positive as well as negative reasons for change as well as involving and engaging them in the detailed design of the changes themselves

Research shows that people are up to 5 times more committed to stories and changes they have architectured themselves. Research has also shown that people fight harder to avoid losing something than they fight for gaining something. The leader’s 100% correct solution is less likely to be accepted, understood, owned and implemented than the 80% correct solution that people have developed themselves.

6. Leaders continually sharpen their self-awareness openly and publicly i.e. they are open about their own shortcomings and invite and act on personal feedback and – as a result – they have a very good understanding of how others perceive them and the impact of their behaviour and emotions on others

Showing humility rather than pretending to be perfect will be seen as a sign of strength. Feedback should not be asked in general terms (how are we doing?) but personal (how am I doing) e.g. what should I stop doing/do less of; start doing/do more of; do differently; how can I make it more right for you? Feedback improves relationships, builds trust and simply makes a leader better.

7. Leaders recognise people and make them feel valued and valuable including by rewarding them in small unexpected, including non-monetary, meaningful ways, as well as formally recognising them

“Satisfaction equals perception minus expectation”. Leaders have a great opportunity to recognise people in small, unexpected ways, which have a disproportionate effect on people’s satisfaction with a change programme. Research also shows that people’s sense of job satisfaction comes not so much from the results achieved but from how they perceive their contribution to the overall effort including their sense of whether they are seen and valued.

A gift a leader can give to show appreciation

8. Leaders engage people to find meaning or a higher purpose to what they are collectively trying to achieve

Meaning drives commitment and motivation. Recognising people in traditional ways (e.g. bonus) goes only so far and runs into ‘diminishing return’ at higher salary levels. A Middle-Eastern technology company researched what really drives employee motivation and found that meaning – seeing purpose and value in what they do – was the most important factor. This finding is more widely supported by research from leadership academics Kouzes & Posner, stretching decades, as well as Dan Pink.

9. Leaders give people ‘line of sight’ i.e. they understand how what they do contributes to the bigger picture and also how the bigger picture benefits them

Like the NASA janitor who replied to the US president when asked what he does “I help to put a man on the moon”, people will feel stronger commitment if the leader explains how and what they do day-to-day is very important to overall success.

10. Leaders broker honesty & truth about all aspects of people, culture and performance

Research shows a very strong correlation between honesty in teams and performance and more specifically, how quickly that honesty comes about i.e. hours, days or weeks. A good leader ‘names the elephant’ about 1) overall performance, 2) good and bad things about culture and how people behave, 3) team performance, conflict and interpersonal relationships, 4) individual performance including his own!

11. Leaders have Generosity of Spirit i.e. when something is successful they let their people shine and take the credit

When things are bad, a good leader leads from the front; when things are good, he leads from the back” – Nelson Mandela. Being generous in spirit costs nothing but can give an enormous boost to people’s confidence, morale and wellbeing.

12. Leaders exchange and review expectations with peers and staff on both hard (targets, objectives, success measures) and soft (behaviours, conflict and issues management, values, principles) outcomes

Leaders should do more than setting expectations around targets. It’s about exchanging expectations (this is what I/the organisation need from you. What do you need from me to make that happen), about jointly agreeing on objectives and priorities and also about agreeing the ‘soft’ i.e. behavioural aspects of the working relationship.

13. Leaders conduct forward-looking performance conversations and break the tight link between attaining individual targets and compensation

Companies increasingly change the nature of performance conversations from retrospectives to forward-looking and from ‘incidental’ to ‘ongoing’. In Change, rather than recognising and rewarding individual attainment of ‘siloed’ or department targets, recognise and link rewards to overall Change objectives or overall company performance, as well as new behaviours that are critical to a new culture and the overall Change (e.g. being supportive, collaborating with others, experimentation, challenging). One Nordic Upstream operator now makes 50% of performance bonus dependant on collaboration with others.

14. Leaders develop their people in a range of different ways i.e. by coaching, training, mentoring and by stretching and supporting them

An effective leader does less doing and delivers results through others; this requires empowerment but also requires the leaders to be an effective coach, guiding people to answers and solutions which they ‘own’ rather than telling them what to do, which creates dependency. Great leaders are great learners and role model this from everybody around them, even the young new team member. Or, as Jack Welch put it “everybody was my mentor”.

15. Leaders create and reinforce a strong culture by setting a personal example of new behaviours, by designing a culture with their people that is based on shared values i.e. people’s personal values and the organisation’s identity, strategy and challenges

Too often leaders expect others to change without visibly changing themselves but they lose the moral right to expect change from others. The power of a culture is dependent of how strongly it is linked to people’s personal values, to overall strategy and challenges. It also requires a clear statement of ‘Identity’ i.e. “what do we want people (clients, competitors, stakeholders) to see and say about us when we leave the room?”

16. Leaders drive performance by setting clear values and standards, visibly role modelling them and effectively, publicly and timely holding people accountable to comply with them

Driving Performance is about countless small, marginal gains rather than big silver bullets. It’s about doing basic things consistently to a very high ‘world-class’ standard as elite military units do. Leaders work with their teams to create clarity on what those high standards should be and which ones matter most (rather than a massively long list). This covers both technical/operational standards as well as behavioural ones and safety related (e.g. always intervene in unsafe practices, reporting near misses etc etc). The leader who pro-actively role models them has earned the moral right to expect others to do the same.

17. Leaders always openly and honestly acknowledge everything that is good and bad about our current reality and drive innovation by acting against – and inviting challenges from others too – the way things have traditionally been done or to current plans and proposals (in an attempt to make them better)

A key role of any leader is to challenge ‘the way things are done around here’. By personally challenging, they make it ok for others to do the same. To do this effectively they need to not only foster diversity in their teams but then also actively encourage everybody to challenge any processes, plans, decisions, proposals and invite people, even or especially junior ones, to challenge them. This is a sign of strength and or having an ego that is strong rather than big. Inviting challenges requires the leader to have, and actively listen with, a genuinely open mind. It also means being humble and letting go of the role of the leader as the ‘source of all solutions’. Any useful challenge should be welcomed as an improvement rather than a personal criticism.

18. Leaders guard against adverse impacts elsewhere in the system, and unintended consequences when driving change and making decisions, by inviting challenges, checking assumptions and being aware of their own biases

Too many leaders are insufficiently on guard against unintended consequences of plans or decisions, including impacts on staff and their morale. They also open themselves up to confirmation bias and overconfidence bias.

19. Leaders effectively and timely address under-performance and non-compliance, whilst being respectful of the fact that they have to create a ‘Just Culture’, by providing constructive feedback and having performance conversations

The underlying root-causes for under-performance and non-compliance can be related to issues of will, skill or both. Depending on what they are in each individual case, the way to deal with them will be different, but they always need to be just. Non-performance or compliance should not just be considered in terms of hitting ‘hard’ targets but also in terms of non-adherence with agreed values and behaviours. Not addressing them timely is not an option as this will lead to double standards, overall poorer performance and better performers eventually leaving. ‘Difficult’ people are a major cause of stress in workforces.

Performance Conversations during Change

20. Leaders hold themselves, their peers and enable their people to hold each other accountable for results (rather than for activity) fairly, visibly and equitably, for the targets they set together

Peer accountability is a very powerful mechanism in high performing teams. It means that holding people accountable is not the exclusive job of the formal boss or leader, but it is everybody’s job. The leader facilitates this process by instilling a ‘feedback & review culture’. High performing leaders and teams do not confuse activity with achievement i.e. they are focused on a limited set of activities that bring real value

21. Leaders create a review culture across the organisation

Regular frequent, short, formal and informal reviews are a highly effective mechanism to ensure continuous learning. The reviews focus on what went well and can be replicated and shared with others and what could be improved. The leader ensures a review is not a post-mortem and is about learning rather than blaming. A good review also covers the ‘hard’ aspects of performance (results, targets, processes etc) as well as ‘soft’ aspects (e.g. did we live our values, how well did work as a team, how honest are we?).

22. Leaders themselves actively seek collaboration across boundaries, putting any shared interests before self and ‘own team’

By actively seeking collaboration, leaders role model people operating interdependently and collaborative leadership across levels and departments. They can assign people to work on shared issues and opportunities and challenge them to co-develop shared targets. They need to actively recognise people who put the interests of the wider team and organisation before their own and be alert to ensure that this is rewarded.

23. Leaders create leadership at all levels and ‘deliver results through others’ by giving control i.e. empowering people and levels who have the information to act and decide, pushing information and initiative downward and coaching for increased capability

A feeling of control also boosts resilience. Effective leaders give people a what and a why (an intent and a reason) and then leave them to develop the details and the plan. The essence of a coaching style of leadership is to develop people’s critical thinking and guide them to alternative options, in an attempt to have them develop an approach or plan which they feel ownership of, rather than simply implementing ‘your plan’.

24. Leaders proactively act as an ‘escalation point’ and ‘top cover’ to resolve issues that cannot be resolved between teams and people, as well as removing obstacles

If and when people are empowered and feel ownership of the ideas and the plan, the role of the leader becomes that of marshalling and (re)allocating resources, communicating, recognising and, crucially, of resolving issues that have been escalated because they cannot be solved by team members (aka ‘managing the exceptions’). This leader habit extends to removing obstacles, which can include stopping people who challenge with a view to obstructing progress, rather than in an attempt to make the solution better.

25. Leaders invite honesty around mishaps, near misses and mistakes and ensure they are brought into the open and are used for learning in the shortest possible time and before blaming takes hold

A leader’s role is to de-risk plans but when leaders enable people to challenge and innovate, inevitably things will go wrong. One of the most important things a leader can do is to encourage a culture where things are reported without delay and with total honesty, where those who come forward are recognised, and where any mistake or mishap is treated as an opportunity for learning (rather than blaming). There is abundant research that supports the idea that teams and organisations this happens vastly outperform others. One way a leader can role model this is by ‘fessing up’ to own or management mistakes and errors. They role model a ‘Learning Mindset’ and encourage this in others.

26. Leaders signal their confidence in the team by expecting team members to set realistic yet challenging targets

A stretch target is finely balanced between team member’s level of competence and confidence. Too easy and it does not lead to learning, too hard and it leads to anxiety and panic. Routinely setting joint targets and objectives that are slightly outside the comfort zone sends an important psychological message to the team member, “I have confidence in you that you can do even better than you already are”.

27. Senior leaders are visible multiple levels down i.e. down to the shop floor and immediate supervisors regularly engage people in toolbox talks about required behaviours

“The higher you rise, the lower you reach”. Senior leaders directly engaging with the workforce is key especially in times of change or crises. The CEO of a global electronics company had bi-weekly check-ins with workers across the globe. A general commanding the USMC gave the Marines their ‘culture back’ after the Vietnam war, by visiting a different Unit every day for a year.

28. Senior leaders role model change before expecting it from others

As we mentioned before, research suggests that one of the biggest reasons why people don’t change is that they don’t see any change in their leaders, particularly senior leaders.

29. Leaders actually translate strategic choices into budgets and resource allocation. This should include the reallocation of people to High-Value-Added activities as well as diverting people and resources from under-performing and/or non core activities

One McKinsey study found that companies who reallocated capital budgets quickly attained higher shareholder returns. It was also suggested that companies must develop the ability for rolling forecasting and budgeting, to enable investments to be made in a timely manner.

30. Leaders rationalise and align initiatives/projects with strategy and strategic imperatives

Saying ‘No’ is a much-underrated leadership skill. Leaders who surround themselves with smart people (as they should) will never be short of ‘good ideas’. The fact that an idea is good does not warrant its implementation. Deciding what not to do and explaining that to people, addresses one of the hidden ‘dark forces’ troubling a lot of Change programmes: A lack of focus.

31. Leaders challenge change targets to ensure the organisation aims for the full change potential

Some change initiatives falter before they have started because targets are set with ‘current reality’ in mind. It is not uncommon for the performance management system to induce managers to ‘sandbag’ allowing them to under-promise and over deliver.

Thank you for taking the time to read our blog! If you have any questions feel free to contact us.
If you haven’t already, read the previous blog post in this series to find out “How to Ensure your Leaders are Equipped to Lead Change”. Read here.

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Gerry De Vries

Written by Gerry De Vries

Since leaving the Marines in the early 90s and taking his MBA at London Business School, Gerry has become a specialist in turning businesses around. His particular expertise lies in improving performance through effective leadership and culture change. He has played a leading role, as Management Team member, Interim Manager and Consultant, in a number of strategic turnarounds and optimisation projects, across different industries. He has led over 35 teams globally and worked with leaders at all levels including Executive and Ministerial.

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