Navigating the change cyclone: four lessons for leaders

The conversation around change is louder and more prominent than ever before. Change itself has become the status quo, as we see businesses reshaping, refocusing and rethinking in the post-Covid era.

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | Leadership

Our own research data shows the classic change curve in action. We see employee advocacy – a classic measure of employee experience that gauges how likely people are to recommend their employer as a place to work – drop almost immediately when an employer announces a significant change. It then spends 18-24 months in the mire before gradually rallying over six to eight months.

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | Impact of organisational change on advocacy

 

But we know that change is never singular. There are always multiple change actions going on and so businesses and their people find themselves in constant, complex motion – moving within a change cyclone, rather than riding a curve.

Charting a course

What can leaders do to help navigate these constant cycles of change? Our research with some of the world’s biggest organisations suggests that there are four critical things leaders need to get right to support people’s resilience and get good outcomes during change.

As employees – which we all are – we’re more likely to stay within our organisation when these behaviours are present. They boost motivation and enhance employee advocacy. And alongside these personal, people-focused metrics, they also impact the bottom line – insight from the retail sector shows a 15% income lift for stores whose leaders show these four qualities the most.

So what do we need from our leaders? What behaviour lessons does the data teach us?

1. People want visible leadership

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | LeadershipMore visible leadership is strongly linked to good people outcomes, driving engagement and making employees more resilient to change.

The story is the same in every organisation we work with irrespective of size, shape and sector: employees are generally much more positive when they hear from their CEO every few days, compared to hearing from them quarterly or every few months. As frequency of communication falls, so does engagement.

The pattern also holds true for all levels of management. CEO visibility matters to people, but so does regular contact with leaders throughout their organisation. From startup to pan-global behemoth, from CEOs, to departmental leaders through to line managers, people need to see who’s in charge.

In many cases this is quite literally true. In the world of hybrid working, there’s still a place for face-to-face communication.

We see a clear link between the method of communication that employees rely on the most and the level of trust they have in senior leaders. An emerging pattern shows that one-way, online communication generates the lowest levels of trust, while in person, on the ground, face-to-face communication tends to be the most effective.

The intranet and emails have their place, and trust levels remain robust when leaders use them – which is fortunate, as these are the channels senior people tend to use a lot – but it’s clear that human contact has a disproportionately positive impact on trust.

As with so many things, it’s all about balance. Many organisations are fighting an ongoing battle to find the right blend with hybrid working. As part of that we need to leave room for valuable face-to-face connection with leaders, as well as those easier-to-distribute but less effective channels.

2. Active listening is powerful

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | LeadershipThere’s a good chance we’ve all experienced the difference between being listened to and being heard. Leaders must show up and listen, then actually hear what colleagues are saying – about their concerns, ideas, and opportunities they’ve identified.

Engagement is strong when people feel heard. When they don’t, we find that people have a much less positive view of their company. And we also know that as many as a third of people feel as though they’re not currently being heard by leaders.

This isn’t an edict to carry out every suggestion ever shared by employees to the letter. It’s much more about creating the overall feeling within an organisation that ideas are genuinely listened to, heard and valued by leaders. These lessons dovetail with one another – being a visible leader, in tandem with truly hearing people, is a powerful combination for leading through change.

3. People want complete clarity of purpose

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | LeadershipWhy are we here? Where are we going? Many businesses and leadership teams think these questions are settled once they announce their big plans for their strategy, priority areas and a long-term future vision. The mission statement is on the website, built into employee handbooks and plastered up in the office. The writing is, quite literally, on the wall.

But people need continuity to have clarity. Which means a drumbeat, a rhythm, not a single big bang. We find that the single biggest thing people want their manager to do more of is keep them informed about priorities, goals and progress. Many employees want regular updates, including a high number of senior leaders – so the message cascade needs to start at the top.

An important side note here is that a significant proportion of people want their manager to spend more quality time with the team. In other words, they crave visible leadership – which takes us back to our first lesson.

4. Empowerment is everything

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | LeadershipThe change cyclone can make people feel like they’re caught up in forces beyond their control. All the more reason to focus on empowerment. Giving people a sense of ownership and belonging is powerful.

Once again, there are practical benefits. Our data shows that teams with a sense of autonomy and empowerment generate six times as many ideas to a business problem, and experience faster, more agile and decision making. This leads to an innovative culture, cutting through the bureaucracy and slow decisions that can hinder people, particularly those in corporate roles in complex businesses.

The lessons in action

The change cyclone is complex, but the ways of leading through it don’t have to be. These lessons aren’t huge ideas or lofty ambitions for leaders – they are simple, practical, easy to implement actions.

You can start now. What behaviour could you demonstrate in the next 24 hours? Or in the next week? And how prevalent are these kind of behaviours in the organisations you work within? Start bringing them in at every level and you can shore up your teams when the hard wind blows.