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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Change-Friendly Leadership

Q&A on the Book Change-Friendly Leadership

Key Takeaways

  • Successful organizational change requires the active, willful participation of the people affected by the change.  
  • In addition to making a solid business case for change, leaders must make a compelling psychological case for change. They must validate the journey.
  • Resistance is neither good nor bad. Managing, and even welcoming, resistance is a key ingredient of effective leadership.  
  • Critical to any successful change effort is the way you deal with the CAST of Characters (Champions, Agents, Sponsors, Targets). A Change-friendly leader knows that synergy it not created by merely adding things together; synergy comes from bonding things together differently.
  • Honest communication is the lubricant of all good relationships.

Friendliness is the core denominator for active and willful participation of people when being affected by change, according to Rodger Dean Duncan. In his book CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP, he explores how to effectively lead and manage change, transition, and implementation issues in organizations.

InfoQ interviewed Rodger Dean Duncan about why change is hard and the role engagement plays when it comes to organizational change, how authentic leadership looks, what we can do to build trust in organizations, how to create a team-friendly environment, and why we need to focus on behavior during change.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Rodger Dean Duncan: Early in my career I was a newspaper journalist and syndicated columnist. I also wrote for a lot of magazines. I wrote my first book more than 40 years ago.

As a young journalist I really enjoyed covering business and politics. I was always drawn to people with big ideas. I also enjoyed watching people try to translate their aspirations and rhetoric into measurable results. Our family obstetrician used to say that for most folks, it's easier to conceive than to deliver. That doesn’t apply just to making babies. It also applies to the successful execution of good ideas.

As a consultant and executive coach, for the past 40 years I’ve been a student and an observer of leadership. I’ve worked with and coached leaders at many levels, from the White House to the factory floor. I’ve seen people who squander opportunity because they try to lead using power and their title. At the other end of the continuum, I’ve seen people get very impressive results even though they have no formal title and virtually zero authority. They lead with influence. Because of their authenticity, others are attracted to them like moths are attracted to a light bulb.

I wondered about the common denominators of both the effective and ineffective leadership I was observing. Then it dawned on me; many of the failed change efforts I’ve seen over the past four decades certainly had the best of smarts and wisdom. Some of them, with their endless charts and graphs and to-do lists, were monuments to planning procedures. What they lacked was ease of use. They lacked humanness. They lacked approachability. They lacked … well, they lacked friendliness.

So I wrote a book explaining what I’ve learned about effective leadership in an atmosphere of change. It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff. The principles and practices I write about have been tried and tested in many different environments. I have personally used them successfully in multiple industries. Quite simply, they work.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Duncan: It’s written to appeal to and help any person or organization needing a user-friendly guide to managing change, transition, and implementation issues. This includes:

  • Directors, senior executives, and middle-management people of business enterprises of any size in any industry, as well as in non-profit organizations
  • Human resources, strategic planning, project management, and corporate development professionals
  • People involved at every level of merger and acquisition work, on both the buy and sell side
  • Training and development personnel
  • Management consultants and performance coaches
  • Colleges and universities, especially as part of a business curriculum (also applicable to student government)
  • Local governments, including city councils, county commissions, and all related entities
  • Local school boards, churches, and other community organizations that struggle with change, transition, and implementation issues. Yes, that’s a pretty broad audience. But most people — from the corporate boardroom to the local school association — are called upon to grapple with change.

InfoQ: How would you define change-friendly leadership?

Duncan: Regardless of the venue, leaders who consistently deliver good results have a number of things in common. They may have different personalities and styles, but they are very effective with a set of core behaviors. These behaviors are related to four action verbs: think, talk, trust, and team. I refer to these behaviors as the Power of the Four Ts.

Effective leadership is all about effective change management. In fact, they are often one and the same. In our fast-moving world, people are typically not called into service to manage the status quo. Whether the venue is politics, the company conference room, the factory floor, the university campus, or anywhere else, leaders are expected to make things better. They’re expected to improve upon the present. They’re expected to show the path to a future that’s somehow better than what people currently have or experience.

CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP is a simple affirmation that successful organizational change involves — requires, in fact — the active, willful participation of the people affected by the change. Change-by-announcement, change-by-slogan, and certainly change-by executive-decree are doomed to failure.

Effective change requires genuinely engaging the brains of the people expected to embrace and even champion the new state of affairs.

Effective change requires engaging people’s feelings — not merely making a business case for action, but making a compelling psychological case for action.

Effective change requires engaging people’s earnest hopes.

In this context, hope is not used as the verbal equivalent of crossing your fingers — as in, "I hope my team wins the game." In this book, hope is used to denote people’s heartfelt aspirations, their dreams, even their sense of self. Any change effort that ignores or pays mere lip service to that kind of engagement is destined for disappointment.

InfoQ: What is it that makes change hard?

Duncan: Many people make change harder than it needs to be. It’s not that they lack time or money or consultants. Those resources are often in rich supply. And it’s not lack of effort. Most organizations have willing workers. Intelligence is rarely the issue. There are smart, eager people everywhere. And I don’t think change is hard because would-be practitioners fail to "organize" properly. Good project management tools are readily available.

A common challenge, I believe, is that people often regard change as a linear sequence, when it’s in fact more of an organic process. Change is less like installing an air conditioner and more like growing a garden. It’s less like engineering an event and more like navigating a journey.

Success with change requires having skills with the "people stuff" — challenging assumptions, conducting honest dialogue, earning and keeping trust, and collaborating in ways that foster enthusiasm, ingenuity, and real synergy.

The "people stuff" is what Change-friendly is all about. In this context, "friendly" is not intended to connote coddling or laissez faire. And it certainly is not intended to imply a warm and fuzzy, hands-off approach to serious issues. Change-friendly is a behavioral protocol. It produces successful change by acknowledging the sentiments and leveraging the individual gifts of people affected by the change. Being Change-friendly may occasionally entail tough love, but it always operates from a platform of respect and caring, not intimidation and contention.

To get consistently great outcomes, a leader must appeal to the heads, hearts, and hopes of the people whose genuine "buy in" is critical to the success of the proposed change.

Leading effectively is a challenge under the best of circumstances. It’s especially so in an environment of change and transition. People are unsure about the future, and this ambiguity feeds the aversion to risk. In such an atmosphere, people need a shepherd, not a sheepherder. They need comfort and confident direction, not a drill sergeant.

InfoQ: What role does engagement play when it comes to organizational change?

Duncan: In many parts of the world, the economy is in pretty good condition right now. You might expect people to be not only grateful for work but more engaged than ever. Yet many of them are not. Having witnessed years of eroding corporate loyalties, organizational downsizing, job losses to globalization, and fragile trust, many workers have adopted a pessimistic view.

Disengagement manifests itself in many ways. The telltale signs include job burnout, quality deficits, and health problems like chronic fatigue, sleep disorders, stress, anxiety, and depression. In some work environments, these conditions contribute directly to safety problems.

I should point out that disengagement is not a character flaw. Most disengaged people did not deliberately become disengaged. In fact, most of them don’t even realize they’re disengaged.

Leaders in most organizations will agree that it’s very expensive when you’re best and brightest people quit and leave. But it’s even more expensive when your best and brightest people quit and stay. Disengagement is enormously expensive. The Gallup organization puts a conservative price tag of $400 billion per year on disengagement in the United States alone.

Engagement flows out of trust, and trust flows out of confidence. They are mutually reinforcing. So with disengagement, what comes first — the fragile trust or the disengagement? Both. And that’s the point. Trust affects everything. Even when people have difficulty articulating their dissatisfaction in the workplace, we find that fragile trust in leadership is nearly always at the core of the dissatisfaction. Effective change simply cannot occur in an environment where people are disengaged.

InfoQ: What does authentic leadership look like?

Duncan: Popular definitions of leadership tend to be externalized. Many of the definitions focus on the outer manifestations of leadership — such as vision, judgment, creativity, drive, charisma, podium presence, etc. — rather than getting to the essence of leadership itself.

This external pattern continues at the organizational level. People often receive recognition for their external mastery. Success is often measured in terms of revenue, profit, new product breakthroughs, cost containment, market share, and many other familiar metrics. Clearly there’s value in achieving and measuring external results. But that’s not the real issue. The more relevant issues are (1) "What produces the external results? " and (2) "What enables the sustaining of good external results? "

The answer to the first question is leadership.

The answer to the second question is great leadership, the authentic variety.

Authentic leadership is a product of honesty. Honesty about putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Honesty in communicating information, both positive and negative. Honesty in accepting — welcoming — viewpoints different from yours. Honesty in integrating the values you profess with the behaviors you exhibit (sounds a lot like "integrity," doesn’t it?).

Authentic leadership is also a product of clarity. Clarity in what you stand for, and what you will not stand for. Clarity in your navigation through the sea of limitless choices, using the "True North" of your values to keep you constantly on the right path and enabling you to make the necessary course corrections when you temporarily stray.

The word authenticity is derived from the same Greek word as author. Becoming an authentic leader requires day-to-day focus and lifelong commitment to self-discovery. Many executive coaching programs seem to emphasize personality more than character. People are often coached on how to act instead of how to be. This charm school approach produces only superficial, short-term results. With sufficient stress, all the old patterns usually return.

Authenticity is a matter of choice. We deliberately choose to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, "The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted."

Unlike some people in the public arena, the truly authentic leader does not try to "compartmentalize" his life. For example, no matter how brilliant he may be with business and organizational matters, a man who cheats on his wife jeopardizes his trust with coworkers. In other words, you’re either trustworthy or you’re not.

InfoQ: What can we do to build trust in organizations?

Duncan: Entire books have been written on this subject. Here’s my brief response.

First, it’s helpful to recognize and acknowledge the effects of trust and what trust "looks" like.

Low trust is a tax. High trust is a dividend. It’s true in a relationship. It’s true on a team. It’s true with a client or customer. It’s true with every kind of stakeholder.

When trust is low, you pay a "tax" — because everything requires more time to accomplish and everything costs you more.

When trust is high, you receive a "dividend" — because you’re able to get things done faster and at a lower cost. This dividend is real. It’s not just a feel-good factor. It’s an actual economic dividend. And the data on it are overwhelming. For example, high-trust organizations tend to have very high levels of employee engagement. That’s a huge dividend.

To build a high-trust organization we must tend to both the big and small things in the organization’s operating culture.

For example, is double talk part of the culture? Double talk is a trust buster and it takes many forms. It can come in the form of spin — a heavily biased and self-serving portrayal of information like financial performance. Double talk can come in the form of cherry picking, selectively presenting facts in a way that supports a particular position and ignores other perspectives. Double talk is found in euphemisms — as when people are never "fired," but rather they are "outplaced." Double talk is manifested as any language or behavior that seems designed to obscure or avoid an unpleasant reality.

Conversely, clearing the fog is a trust builder. Remember that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Use examples that are plausible, relevant, and real. Use language that stands up straight. Words that lurk behind corners or tip-toe around issues are neither credible nor convincing. Political correctness is a particular offender.

Pulling rank is another trust buster. Some people try to exert influence by using the power of their position or authority. To build trust, simply drop the pretense. Deal with people as intelligent beings, regardless of where their job titles show up on the organization chart.

Avoid playing favorites. Of course we all have favorites from time to time. Some people are simply easier to work with, more fun to be around, more reliable. It’s natural to prefer their companionship. But when our private favoritism affects — or even appears to affect — our judgment, we have a problem. People tend to contribute more to an organization’s success- they are more engaged — when they perceive themselves to be treated fairly.

You can avoid playing favorites if you engage in honest dialogue about important work issues. Be explicit in pointing out the contributions people make. And be specific about how their work affects the work of others.

Flimsy feedback can erode trust. While it’s true that self-starting achievers typically don’t need a lot of strokes, giving too little feedback is a common trust buster. I once heard a so-called leader say, "My people should just be grateful to have jobs. If they do something wrong, I’ll let ‘em know. Otherwise, they should just press on. There’s too much work to do to take time with a bunch of back-slapping." In that same conversation this man wondered aloud why his people didn’t seem very engaged in the work. Flimsy feedback is often another form of the double talk we discussed earlier. Mind-numbing business jargon can render a well-intended conversation or meeting meaningless.

On the other hand, we build trust when we coach with clarity. Focus on facts, verifiable data. Jettison the double talk. If you want people to "be on the same page," tell them specifically what that means.

Fake work is another common trust buster. I’m not talking about the laggards who deliberately invest more energy in getting out of work than in performing meaningful service. I’m talking about earnest and honest people who work very hard at well-intended things that don’t really contribute to strategic purpose. This includes a lot of the meetings, reports, briefings, procedures and other activities that consume people’s time on the job. How can you trust leaders who are perceived to be out of touch with what’s really going on in the organization? How can you trust leaders who fail to translate "vision" into plans and systems that help real people do real work? How can you trust leaders who condone and even reward fake work? How can you trust leaders who insist that trust is not an issue when everyone else knows it is?

A solution for fake work? Connect the dots. Clarify, translate, and define strategies. Collaborate in defining critical tasks, then prioritize and refine them. Plan the work, then work the plan. Ensure that every worker operates with a personal work plan that explicitly aligns critical tasks with organizational strategy. Then monitor, measure, calibrate, adjust, and get better. In an environment of mutual accountability, trust can thrive.

InfoQ: How can we create a team-friendly environment?

Duncan: Teamwork is of course more common as a buzzword than as an actual practice.

Here are some things to remember when working to create and maintain a team-friendly environment.

Regardless of their composition, teams don’t function in a vacuum. To help ensure success, it’s critical to establish and maintain the right environment.

A team is most likely to be effective when five conditions exist:

  1. It’s a real team, not just a team in name only. The participants must be thoughtfully selected and given the freedom to work interdependently in a mutually supportive way. The team must have clear tasks, clear boundaries, and clear authority.
  2. The team must have a compelling purpose that kindles the enthusiasm of its members. The purpose must have meaning, it must connect to values and principles that are important to the participants, it must energize them, and it must be articulated in a way that clearly connects the dots between people’s efforts and their accomplishment of worthy objectives. An explicit team charter can be helpful.
  3. The team must have a reinforcing framework that promotes and enables rather than inhibits team achievement.
  4. The team must enjoy a nurturing context, not just lip service support. Teams don’t operate in an organizational vacuum. Just as a garden plant requires nurturing soil, water, fresh air, and sunlight, a team requires a context that enables it to thrive and produce. Mere "permission" to form a team is not enough. Appreciation is not enough. Sympathy is not enough. Even encouragement and cooperation are not enough. A team needs to be defended from the slings and arrows of the naysayers. It needs to be shielded from the grenades lobbed by those who wish to sabotage the team’s mission. It needs a safe harbor from the bureaucrats who want to hamstring the team in endless procedures and paperwork. In short, the team needs explicit reinforcement from systems and processes and conspicuous sponsorship from credible leaders.
  5. Finally, team members have ready access, individually and collectively, to skillful coaching on teamwork issues.

These five conditions are not simply nice-to-have ingredients. Just as a balanced diet, regular exercise, fresh air, and adequate rest are essential to good health, these conditions are imperative for team effectiveness.

Notice that the emphasis here is on conditions rather than on the leadership of a single individual. Leadership is of course important. But in the realm of teams, the primary responsibility of leaders is to create and maintain these five enabling conditions. These conditions, in turn, increase the likelihood that a team will conduct its work effectively and achieve its mission.

InfoQ: In the book, you suggest to focus on behavior during change. Why is that, and how can we do it?

Duncan: Real change, just as with real stagnation, occurs one behavior at a time. Rather than painting your change with a broad brush, focus on the individual pixels of behavior. Explicitly define the behaviors that will produce the results you want. For example, all of my nuclear power clients work tirelessly in promoting what they call a safety conscious work environment. Those that are most successful place less emphasis on slogans and posters, and more emphasis on teaching — and rewarding — specific behaviors like open and honest dialogue. An advantage of the Focus on Behavior approach is that it reinforces personal accountability for performance.

About the Book Author

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is a business consultant, executive coach, and bestselling author. His client roster has included leading companies in multiple industries, as well as presidential cabinet officers in two White House administrations. His blog reaches opt-in business subscribers in more than 120 countries, and he writes a regular column for Forbes magazine.

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