How Do Barriers to Change Influence Leadership Decision-Making?

How Do Barriers to Change Influence Leadership Decision-Making?

Nowadays, there is turbulence in business environments due to globalisation and increasingly rapid advances in technology. Change is the only thing that managers and leaders know with certainty that it will happen to their organisations. Such change can affect: objectives and goals; strategies; resources; structure; systems; and environment of the organisation. Therefore, leaders need to understand the nature of change, main barriers to change and how to use force field analysis before change is implemented. This essay aims to facilitate this understanding.

Change may be initiated or imposed. Initiated change is planned by the organisation’s internal stakeholders such as employees, managers, and shareholders. Initiated changes, for example innovations, can come from middle managers and/or frontline employees. Such innovative changes may be aimed at solving internal issues such as overcoming a weakness or exploiting opportunities from external environment. However, the nature of the change depends on the situation at hand: when there is a crisis, change can be dramatic; in times of relative stability, change is systematic through strategists like external consultants though it can also be organic without anybody managing it formally.

Imposed change can be from external sources such as activist groups thus imposed on the organisation. Other sources of such change are the PEST factors: Political, Economic, Sociocultural, and Technological changes in the macro environment. However, it should be noted that some internally initiated changes may be imposed on organisational members. For example, management can force employees to adopt a new reporting structure without seeking employees’ input. In other words, not all imposed changes are external to the organisation.

Internally initiated changes are better than externally imposed changes. This is because imposed changes usually lack legitimacy and employee support thus leading to resistance to the change effort. Similarly, they can cause unintended disruptions to the system. To the contrary, internally initiated changes can be managed in a way that enables them to meet intended goals and outcomes. Whichever nature of change, it needs leaders who can share relevant information specific to the required change, facilitate ownership of the change process, and enhance internal collaboration, support and commitment to the change.

In addition to initiated and imposed change, change can be proactive/pre-emptive or responsive/reactive in nature. This depends on the situation faced by the organisation. For example, when organisational members realise that there is an internal weakness in the operational procedures, they can look for ways of improving their procedures. This becomes a proactive change effort before such a weakness enhances threats to the organisation. To the contrary, there can be change in the trade policies within the market in which the organisation operates. To remain working within the rules, the organisation may need to initiate changes in its systems thus starting a reactive change process.

It is common knowledge that about 70% of reactive changes fail to achieve intended outcomes. This implies that organisations need proactive leaders who view their usual role as to make decisions based on collected data and information. This behaviour contrasts to those of reactive leaders who remember to collect necessary data when faced with a problem. Such leaders react to issues at hand thus making the reactive leaders slower decision-makers, less prepared to respond and thus outperformed by their proactive counterparts.

Whichever the nature of change, its success will depend on the organisational culture. Organisational culture consists of beliefs, values, and assumptions that influence how employees do things and behave in the organisation. Some of the components of culture are taken-for-granted yet they are deeply seated in the organisation’s routines and processes: employees and leaders follow them unconsciously. Leaders need to ensure that they are facilitating a culture that fosters embracing change. For example, leaders’ decisions should be made in such a way that facilitates individual initiative and creativity, flexibility, risk-taking, and experimentation. These attributes can make employees support adaptive change when they are used to such a working environment.

To facilitate a culture that embraces adaptive change, leadership should be giving employees freedom to think in new ways and suggest ideas that deviate from the established norms and routines. This enables them to work against organisational culture and lead to new processes and practices which have potential to improve performance. In other words, leaders can decide to change an organisational culture which is perceived as strong enough to acts as a barrier to change and having potential to make the change effort fail. Such change of culture can be facilitated through rewarding change efforts and acting as role models in the change process: leaders should be seen acting the change they preach.

Schein (1983) formulated a model of organisational culture which perceives organisational culture as evolving from peoples’ learning experiences. Such learning occurs as people try to cope with both internal and external problems thus leading to emergence of a pattern of values and assumptions that influence thoughts and feelings of members in certain situations or when faced with certain problems. This shows that organisational culture influences how people think, make choices and decisions, and feel about certain problems. Therefore, leaders’ behaviour as proactive or reactive decision-makers is greatly influenced by organisational culture.

Whereas organisational culture has great influence, individual leaders may not know why they behave or think in a certain way: they may not know why they are fast or slow at making decisions. This knowledge/awareness can be surfaced by an external systematic inquiry such as performed by consultants who do not share the same organisational culture. This is when deep seated values, beliefs and assumptions can be discovered and a decision made on whether to change them or maintain them according to their perceived influence on the required change. Like organisational culture, other main barriers to change are poor communication and negotiation mechanism; and non-participatory decision-making.

Poor communication and negotiation mechanism. Whenever certain change effort fails to meet intended outcomes, there are some questions that need to be answered in order to understand the cause of failure. Such questions include the following: Were employees given required information about the change? Were employees given opportunity to freely express their opinions about the suggested change? To overcome poor communication and negotiation mechanism as a barrier to change, change strategists/initiators need to focus on winning people’s thoughts and emotions: they need to plan to have rational and emotional engagement with the people. This is when the people will feel valued and perceive the change as their own thus supporting the change effort. Such a barrier to change, if viewed as strong enough to lead to failure, will be overcome by deciding to communicate and negotiate with all organisational members before change is implemented.

Non-participatory decision-making. Whenever employees view themselves as “outsiders” to the change effort, they can decide to either do nothing during the change process or mobilise themselves to undermine the change. In other words, employees can be supporters, active disruptors, or passive watchers during the change implementation process. This means that leaders need to consider where certain members belong and plan for ways to win their support for the change. One way to do this is to invite members to participate in decision-making at the earliest opportunity. Therefore, leaders should determine whether the resistance to change will be strong enough to cause failure. In case it has such strength, a decision to facilitate participation should be made.

Aware that change efforts can have supporting/driving forces and resistive/restraining forces, leaders can use Lewin’s force field analysis to understand potential forces that will act on the change required. The force field analysis involves determining the source and relative strength of each potential force. When done appropriately, the analysis of these forces will facilitate informed decision-making and increase the chances of successfully implementing the change. For example, consider a company that intends to change from serving employees lunch at the workplace to paying them lunch allowance. Analysts can list forces supporting the change (driving forces) and those that oppose it (resistive/restraining forces). Each category of forces is then given a score on a scale such as very weak, weak, strong, very strong. The scores will then be the basis for making appropriate decisions to ensure that the change will be implemented successfully. Strong driving forces are facilitated while strong resistive forces are undermined/weakened using relevant change management frameworks.

In sum, organisations are facing turbulence due to globalisation and increasingly rapid advances in technology. Managers and leaders are assured that change will happen to their organisations. They thus need to understand the nature of change, potential barriers to change and how to use force field analysis to understand the forces acting on the change. Main barriers to change are: organisational culture; poor communication and negotiation mechanism; and non-participatory decision-making. These barriers influence leadership decision-making depending on whether they are perceived as strong enough to lead to failure of the change effort. Leaders need to make right choices and decisions depending on their potential impact on their followers if they are to implement changes successfully.

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