Organizational Leaders Can’t Fix People



Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936

Last week, in the middle of an important project, my printer stopped working. My first response was frustration and then I shifted into figuring out what went wrong. It turned out that the problem had to do with the cartridge and all that was needed to fix it was to replace it with a new part. Done –  not very exciting or interesting news. But, it got me thinking about how organizations still go about dealing with change and human dynamics.

In my attempt to resolve the problem with my printer I took a linear approach; get to the source of the problem and replace it with a new part. I can’t begin to tell you how often I hear stories from the workplace that reveal the same approach to efforts to ‘fix” what’s broken – a program, a communication issue, a person. In fix-it cultures, concerned more with quick results, this poses major obstacles to the massive changes needed to shift mindsets towards greater resiliency, transparency and collaboration.

In the thousands of books and articles written about change management, less emphasis has been placed on so-called “soft” management – leadership, motivation and human dynamics. In his article, Why Change Management Fails in Organizations, Ray Williams point out that  “change success in large organizations depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees-no easy task. I would add to their conclusion that individuals in organizations, to embrace change, must also engage in a process that changes how they think about themselves, not just their job.” 

A Towers Watson study that included 276 large and midsize organizations from North America, Europe and Asia, found that only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long-term.  The reason for this low success rate likely reflects the continued emphasis placed on structure and operations and not the thinking, beliefs and behaviors of employees  – an uncontrollable set of dynamics.

Aubrey C. Daniels, author or Other People’s Habits  suggests that it’s a rare leader who understands the connection between human psycho-dynamics and behavior change. It is simply neglected territory in modern management.  He says that “how employees are paid, appraised, rewarded and recognized has financial implications,” but when designed without an understanding of human behavior, the results can be destructive.

According to  Daniels, My 30 years of experience with corporate America have led me to believe most business leaders are trained in the math of balance sheets, not the science of human behavior. They don’t understand that you can’t change organizational behavior without changing human behavior. Only when managers understand the basic principles of behavioral science and apply them skillfully will they realize the full potential of their employees and their organizations. “

What then, do leaders need to do to be more effective change agents?

On a structural/operational level, leaders need to create the conditions for continuous development, feedback, growth and encouragement. Cultures that promote  fairness, open communication and transparency need to become priorities for leaders at all levels.  Unprecedented disengagement and stress levels are outcomes of severe deficiencies of the sort of environmental markers that sustain emotional health and self-generated motivation.

On an organizational cultural level, leaders and CEOs, must understand, respect and connect to the mind-sets of their employees. After all, isn’t a culture the aggregate mindsets of the people within the organization?  Without appearing parental or psychotherapeutic, leaders need to have the skills that encourage and foster employee self-awareness, while also bringing attention to their relationship with others, not just their job.

One way that leaders can navigate the waters of change and effectively respond to the uncertainty, fear and anxiety accompanying change, is to respond to people through the lens of neuroscience. Change ultimately leads to stress. Stress, in turn, activates specific regions in the brain that can result In strategies and decisions not in our best interests. For sure this is no lighthearted reality…stress-related illnesses are the number one cause of employee sick days.

Writing from a neuroscience perspective, David Rock and Jeffery Schwartz state:

“The traditional command-and-control style of management doesn’t lead to permanent changes in behavior. Ordering people to change and them telling them how to do it fires the prefrontal cortex’s hair-trigger connection to the amygdala. The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong, the more they push back. The brain will try to defend itself from threats. Our brains are so complex that it is rare for us to be able to see any situation in exactly the same way as someone else. The way to get past the prefrontal cortex’s defenses is to help people come to their own resolution regarding the concepts causing through their prefrontal cortex to bristle.”

The problem continues to be that the leadership of many organizations remain stuck in a 20th century mentality of top-down, “command and control,” parts-based, position-based authority. Command and control is based on establishing and maintaining power over and control of, people and organizational processes that minimizes attention to the emotional reactions to change.

Unless leaders and managers adopt a new paradigm for responding to change that reflects an understanding of and respect for the uniqueness of individual mindsets – there will always be an undercurrent of distrust and uncertainty. As Aubrey Daniels wisely points out, “People are the most important element of every organization. With the complex challenges facing American business leaders every day, the science of human behavior cannot be ignored. Rather, it must be the starting place for every decision we make, every new technology we apply, and every initiative we employ.”


Thanks for reading!

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

Join our mailing list and receive our occasional mailings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s