Insights: Leaders ride wave of large-scale organizational change

October 29, 2014
Jean Macgregor
Royal Roads researcher Dr. Charlotte Gorley shares findings for leaders navigating large-scale organizational change.

A silver tsunami is headed for the Canadian health care system. As the medical needs of aging baby boomers coincide with retirements of a large cohort of family physicians, primary and community health care systems are merging.

School of Leadership Studies researcher Dr. Charlotte Gorley and Prof. Ron Lindstrom set out to discover how effective leaders address issues brought about by this perfect storm of large-scale change in a study funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR).

Here, Gorley shares findings for leaders navigating large-scale organizational change.

Successful change doesn’t just happen.

The foundation of a house needs time for the cement to set, and it is the same when introducing large-scale change. Effective leaders take time to build relationships, make time for dialogue and give time for people to absorb changes, individually and collectively.

Revisit the vision and purpose of the change periodically and ask, “Why are we doing this, again?” Look at some of the unintended consequences of change and ensure the purpose of the change has not been forgotten. Ask, “What is still in place simply because this is the way it’s always been done?”

Leaders can be aware that not everyone has the same view of the system. People view the system from their unique vantage point, and make assumptions about the system based on their place in it. Some see the system as their own unit with other groups on the periphery, while others have a broader view. Leaders can help people uncover assumptions and misunderstandings and encourage connections between different parts of the system.

Relationships are built between people, not roles.

Relationships between members of the system are vital to building trust and confidence in the change effort. Turnover and constant ‘churn’ in an organization can impede change initiatives by damaging relationships, reducing trust and causing delays in decision-making. Making time for dialogue, listening to hear and resolving conflict are integral to relationship building, but it can be challenging to find time to do this properly.

Leaders can assess change timelines so that everyone has enough time up front to allow them to feel onboard. They can hold regular discussions and conversations, especially when new people join the team. They can allow time for people to learn how to work together in new arrangements and use tools like an urgent/important matrix to ensure that the important things are not sacrificed for the urgent demands.

Leaders can actively connect different parts of the system by connecting individuals and groups and being a bridge between departments. Leaders can identify the barriers to relationship building (for example, time and travel) and devise ways to overcome those barriers (for example, combining events using technology effectively).

Leaders can be purposeful in recognizing and celebrating people’s shifts in mindsets and ways of working by incorporating positive recognitions in performance reviews and by simply observing, commenting and thanking people for their efforts.

Navigate generational shifts.

As baby boomers retire, all sectors are affected by demographic change. There may not be a talent pool large enough to draw from and overworked leaders may be unable to find replacements. Work ethics differ between generations. Leaders observe that younger people hold different views on what work-life balance means to them, and younger professionals establish boundaries around their personal time in ways that earlier generations have not.

The development of junior leaders will become even more important in coming years. Leaders can take action to prepare for this shift by determining how to best integrate different generations of employees, create connection points for people in an inter-generational workplace and transfer organizational knowledge.

Lead by example.

Leaders can present and conduct themselves in a way that exudes integrity, authenticity and honesty. They can connect with others in differing parts of the system. They can look for positive changes and shifts to praise. Leaders can listen and be curious about others’ perspectives and question their own assumptions and what might be taken for granted. They can set personal boundaries, mentor others and take time to reflect and to view the system using a wide-angle lens.