Preparing Units for Change

Preparing Units for Change

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Leaders change and make change. Iteratively improving organizations is an inherent responsibility of leadership, a responsibility that’s even codified in the Army’s definition of leadership. But change is hard; leading an organization through it is even harder.

Although research models such as John Kotter’s eight steps from his 1996 book, Leading Change, equip leaders to direct organizational change more successfully, they tend to overlook an important precursor: the organization’s readiness for change. Even before crafting and communicating a compelling vision for change, leaders should assess their unit’s need as well as readiness for it. First, are the unit’s performance, readiness metrics and climate demonstrating compelling signs for a drastic change?

Moreover, are the unit’s climate, cohesion and processes prepared to endure the strain of change, eventually adopting its results? Leaders have a responsibility to first prepare their unit for change.

Preparing a unit for change is important and ongoing work. It includes activities like improving unit climate, developing resilient processes and inspiring soldier alignment to the unit’s priorities. This pre-change work achieves several important things for the unit. First, it establishes mutual trust and respect across the organization, especially between leaders and subordinates. Second, it fosters high commitment among soldiers and a desire to make the organization better. Third, it creates an environment that enables candor as well as transparency to flow up and down the chain of command, which is crucial to improve the success of future change. This environment includes activities such as providing feedback, promoting shared vulnerability and creating a collective sense of belonging. Last, it compels soldiers to be more willing to accept and participate in the change process.

There are four steps leaders can take to develop their unit’s readiness for change: modeling optimism and energy, cultivating psychological safety, normalizing gratitude and integrating a robust system of feedback. These steps build on one another and so, are offered through a sequential approach. Not only are these steps vital precursors to change, but they also continue to support the unit as it experiences change in the future.

Modeling Optimism, Energy

Leadership author and coach John Maxwell asserts that people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. A leader’s priorities, emotions and energy are contagious, percolating across the unit. Optimism encourages others to see and desire an improved future; energy brings excitement to what the unit is doing now and what it is moving toward.

These qualities push others to show up better for the unit, to participate and fully commit themselves, rather than merely complying.

Leaders are a consistent source that others feed off. Remaining appropriately (though not unrealistically) positive and energetic, especially when circumstances are challenging, helps the unit remain steady amid instability. Consider famed football coach Tom Landry’s words: “Leadership is having people look at you and gain confidence seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.”

A leader’s optimism and energy project confidence throughout the unit. These leader qualities are not only needed before, but also during, organizational change. They are foundational to many of Kotter’s eight steps, which include creating a sense of urgency, communicating a vision and building a guiding coalition.

All rely on a leader’s ability to help others see and be excited about a better possible future, which is a critical role of the commander in the operations process.

Throughout preparing for and leading change, leaders serve as the unit’s thermostat, shaping attitudes and perceptions; they are not simply the thermometer reflecting those thoughts and emotions. Setting the tone is foundational before and during change.

Cultivating Psychological Safety

Research initiated by Google in 2012, titled Project Aristotle, discovered that the No. 1 quality of the most effective teams was psychological safety. Leaders build safe units—safe in the sense of belonging. Psychologically safe units consistently communicate, “You are safe here, you have a future here, and we value your perspective,” in both big and small ways. Safety encourages soldiers to be themselves, to bring their whole selves to work every day, and to speak up without fear of reprisal or embarrassment.

All units face challenges that, if neglected, decrease readiness and increase risk to the mission and the force. One key challenge includes instilling psychological safety across the organization. The chain of command must listen and be receptive to bottom-up feedback. Leaders should balance grace and patience with accountability, and model vulnerability for others to follow.

Their actions build an important foundation for nurturing commitment, trust and cohesion among soldiers. These qualities are defining elements of high-performing teams and will be heavily stressed during future change iterations.

Normalizing Gratitude

In their book, Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton state, “Gratitude provides clarity about whether the work [team members] are doing is correct, valued by the boss or others, and making a significant contribution to the business.” Acts of gratitude in the unit help soldiers feel like they are seen by others, they belong and their contributions are valued. Gratitude normalized within a unit also makes it a more positive and enjoyable place to work.

Change alters the unit’s status quo, often requiring different and more work from soldiers. Gratitude is a means to recognize others for their contributions to change. It shows that leaders continue valuing their people throughout the turbulence of change. However, initiating acts of gratitude during the change process can send disingenuous messages to soldiers; it should be an established norm before change has begun.

Gratitude felt does not necessarily lead to gratitude expressed. Leaders must overtly express gratitude for it to have an impact. Moreover, gratitude should be normalized as a collective behavior, not just from leader to subordinates. Gratitude should be shared between peers and even up from subordinates to superiors. Expressing gratitude not only creates a more positive environment, but it is also a means to practice giving positive feedback, which helps leaders transition the unit into the last step of integrating feedback, including constructive feedback, into its routine practices.

Integrating Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is the simplest, yet most effective, way of improving performance for individual soldiers and the collective unit. While the previous steps create an exciting, safe and warm environment, integrating feedback is the step that leverages those conditions to begin productively improving the unit. This is the hardest step and often creates the biggest waves. But through practice and time, it can become a norm of how the unit does routine business as a high-performing organization.

Feedback can be injected into a variety of events like unit training after-action reviews, leader counseling sessions, routine one-on-one meetings, sensing sessions, in more casual situations like during physical training or eating in dining facilities, and addressing standards corrections in a timely manner with candor and care.

Integrating a series of activities to allow soldiers to give and receive feedback generates shared ownership within the unit and a willingness to hold one another accountable. By creating deliberate feedback systems in their unit, leaders take the novelty out of giving and receiving feedback. With practice, soldiers become more willing to participate, willing to uncover hard truths about themselves and others, and focused on shared improvement.

Like gratitude, a unit’s system of feedback needs to be shared up, down and across; not just driven from the top down. These activities keep soldiers engaged during change—willing to share their perceptions and concerns to superiors throughout—which builds soldier ownership and participation in the unit’s future change efforts.

A Final Benefit

Before leaders begin to improve their units through change processes, they should first assess their units’ readiness for change. They can leverage the four steps of modeling optimism and energy, cultivating psychological safety, normalizing gratitude and integrating a robust system of feedback as mechanisms to grow the unit’s readiness, which ultimately creates conditions for successful change. These steps build a healthy unit climate, cohesion and productive processes to engage those factors.

Finally, these steps not only build a unit’s readiness for significant change, but they also serve as microchanges themselves, allowing soldiers and leaders to dip their toes into the experience of change. By injecting these small activities into the unit, soldiers realize that change is not as threatening as they imagine, and the results are worth the hard work and the grueling process.

Through these steps, the unit’s performance and soldier satisfaction and vitality all improve—and it is ready for the next iteration of productive change.