Change management is seen as an essential component of many corporate initiatives, such as Six Sigma.Sponsors are identified, consultants are hired, and people are trained and deployed as change agents. Employees seem to embrace the change as demonstrated by their enthusiasm for training and certification, and resistance seems to be under control as few question the legitimacy of the initiative. People learn to talk with new buzzwords, organize their work with new tools, and present beautiful PowerPoint slides in new templates. But the same old problems repeat and persist, and the same dysfunctional behaviors prevail in the organization. Nothing fundamentally has changed.

Unfortunately this scenario happens too often. In many cases, it is because many senior leaders failed to recognize that their own behaviors and interactions with others have a huge influence on others, and therefore, the organization’s performance. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, “Why good bosses tune in to their people” by Stanford professor Robert Sutton, illustrates this well.

Whether or not they know it, their followers monitor, magnify, and often mimic their moves. … [S]enior executives’ actions can reverberate throughout organizations, ultimately undermining or bolstering their cultures and performance levels….. [Y]our subordinates watch you constantly, so they know more about you than you know about them.

He suggests that the extraordinary attention paid to an organization’s leaders can be an opportunity for them to “take control:”

  1. Express confidence even if you don’t feel it
  2. Don’t dither
  3. Get and give credit
  4. Blame yourself

and to “bolster performance” of your people:

  1. Provide psychological safety
  2. Shield people
  3. Make small gestures

All are common leadership standards but are not commonly followed. Continuous improvement or change management cannot be just about making others change. More importantly, we have to change ourselves, especially those in leadership positions. In conclusion, Sutton says:

Good bosses don’t just get more from their people and do it in more civilized ways; they attract and keep better people. If you think your employees are deadbeats, downers, and jerks, look in the mirror. Why don’’t the best people want to work for you? Why do people who appeared to be stars when they joined your team seem to turn rotten?

In my opinion, the first step to improving an organization, and hard for many of us, is to recognize that we have to change first, and do it.

Of all the skills and aspirations good bosses must have, self-awareness is probably the most important….. [T]he best bosses are keenly aware of their flaws, work to overcome them and to reverse the resulting damage, and enlist others who can compensate for their weaknesses.

So here is my question: before a major change initiative was started, how often did the most senior sponsor ask “What do I, and my senior staff, have to change before this initiative can succeed?”

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