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Empowerment trumps authority

January 7, 2015

Greg Satell makes some excellent points is his HBR blog post: “To Create Change, Leadership Is More Important Than Authority.”

“Aspiring junior executives dream of climbing the ladder to gain more authority. Then they can make things happen and create the change that they believe in. Senior executives, on the other hand, are often frustrated by how little power they actually have.

“The problem is that, while authority can compel action, it does little to inspire belief. It’s not enough to get people to do what you want, they also have to want what you want—or any change is bound to be short lived.

“That’s why change management efforts commonly fail. All too often, they are designed to carry out initiatives that come from the top. When you get right down to it, that’s really the same thing as telling people to do what you want, albeit in a slightly more artful way. To make change really happen, it doesn’t need to be managed, but empowered. That’s the difference between authority and leadership.”

This story illustrates how leadership, more than formal authority and hierarchy, is critical in making change sustainable. And I couldn’t agree more. But, as I’ve also learned helping clients work through all sorts of change initiatives, the most successful leaders—the leaders that empower their people to make the change successful and sustainable—are highly skilled in communication and coaching. They make sure their employees understand the following:

  • What’s the purpose of the change? (This also answers why the change is necessary.)
  • What’s in it for them? (How might they benefit?)
  • What’s the vision of the successful implementation of the change? (What’s the goal?)
  • What would happen if they didn’t change? (What are the consequences of staying with the status quo?)

And, once the changes start to take place, these change-capable leaders recognize that their employees need to be coached often. They watch for changes in behavior, missed deadlines, negative interactions, apathy, and detachment that can occur during times of change. They address these potential problems quickly and with empathy to keep any negativity from deepening and spreading to other team members. And they recognize that coaching their team through one change builds the capability and capacity in their team to change, adapt, and ultimately, grow in the future. And that’s always good for business.

What’s the worst organizational change rollout you’ve seen, and how did you live through it? Please share your comments below.

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