In the midst of making change, leaders face a common set of barriers that can delay or completely derail their efforts. Change cynicism is one such barrier, expressed in statements like, “We’ve tried this before” or questions like, “What’s going to be different this time?” As we’ve explored before, cynicism to change is often a rational and even moral response to past failed attempts at change. And one of the greatest drivers of that cynicism is what we call “Change Theater”: activities that occurred that gave the appearance that change was happening, or that change was supported by leadership, without actual traction or meaningful support.
Change Theater can look like:
- Sloganeering. While a defined vision for the future lets the team know where they need to go, it’s all too easy for change to become just another communications exercise, turning blank office walls and employee swag into billboards for vague promises like “One [Company Name Here].”
- Assigning Responsibility Without Authority. New roles dedicated to a specific function or goal can make an impact… Unfortunately, too often a new “Head of X” is hired or a committee or taskforce dedicated, but they aren’t given the authority to make real decisions, or the budget and resources to implement them.
- Kickoffs (with no End Goal). To excite teams about the upcoming changes and focus energies on a specific issue, leaders may sponsor “launch parties” or “hackathons.” Without the budget or support to continue the momentum past the first obstacles, though, these attempts tend to fizzle out.
- Listening (but not Learning) Tours. Surveys and sessions that solicit employee input are essential for developing an understanding of the changes that need to take place—but if they only result in an elaborate strategy document, or more promises of change without action, participation withers and resentment grows in its place.
Ultimately, Change Theater is any change effort that talks a big game without ever delivering real results. In fact, Change Theater can have high costs. It has a pernicious effect on an organization’s overall ability to change because it erodes the collective belief that change is possible. With every failure to follow through comes another broken promise, ratcheting up future resistance and cynicism to proposed changes: “This time will be different, sure.”
Change Theater also can destroy trust in leadership, as these activities can seem cynically designed by leaders to appease immediate frustrations without truly changing the status quo. Additionally, Change Theater asks people to spend time and energy on initiatives that take resources away from real, necessary change, or even just from critical day-to-day work, which also contributes to increased burnout.
As a leader making change, your responsibility here is twofold: 1) to be aware of any past broken promises so that you can address them and navigate any cynicism and resistance that may accompany them, and 2) to not re-stage any further Change Theater activities that could erode trust and slow your own changes.
To make sure your organization avoids Change Theater and truly implements meaningful, sustainable change:
- Commit resources and time to change, and don’t overcommit to the amount of change you hope to make. Ambitious organizations have a tendency to bite off more than they can chew, and then throw far too few dedicated resources at too many simultaneous changes, resulting in minimal efforts and missing results. Instead, consider what pain points are most important to solve within your organization, and what’s realistically solvable given existing resources and time.
- Have a clear and measurable outcome or set of outcome(s) your changes are aiming to produce (e.g. increase speed of delivery, increase customer retention, etc.). Set the goal posts clearly so everyone is aligned on what successful change looks like. If you need to listen first before you set this intention, remember to have a plan to take action and share this as well.
- Focus on changing policies, process, and outcomes (in other words, behaviors) before attitudes and mindsets. Don’t worry as much about whether people seem enthusiastic about a change—if a change is really warranted, it must show up first in how individuals act. Once they see how the new behaviors are creating a better way of working, they may come around!
- Demonstrate progress by sharing the wins as well as the lessons learned —even from stumbles. Most importantly, don’t go silent, or let the change remain an empty promise. Keep people updated on how you’re tracking towards the milestones you’ve set. If the need or context changes and the change has to be abandoned, say so and why. People can understand that not everything goes according to plan, but simply ignoring or hiding challenges will increase skepticism of future change efforts.
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