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The rapid pace of change – and what it means for municipal leaders

by James Wilson, Municipal World
in Management, ONLINE FEATURE
September, 2018

Municipalities deal with change – that’s nothing new. The constant pace of change is no more apparent than the situation facing municipal leaders at present: nearly half the country is preparing for municipal elections; NAFTA negotiations have the potential to wreak havoc on whole industries; and the Ontario government is challenging some of the fundamental election processes … to name just a few. In light of this, how we deal with change is essential.

The very nature of change has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. What was once a discrete process is now a constant. Changes are ubiquitous, and rarely is one completed before the next one started. Staff are often on edge, and citizen demands are high. That’s the atmosphere that Liane Davey – author, speaker, psychologist – spoke on at her keynote presentation at the 2018 Ontario East Municipal Conference in Cornwall. As leaders, we have an opportunity and the obligation to manage our teams and our communities in the best way possible. And, managing change is vital as a leader – people are going to look to you in change scenarios, and dealing with those scenarios properly is essential.

The Reality of Change

The reality of change is that most people don’t like it. It’s disruptive, it’s taxing on our brains, it can be panic inducing, and it can create judgment. We have the stereotypes of being antiquated, about “teaching old dogs new tricks” versus “flavour of the month.” It can create divisions on a team that are unhelpful and detrimental.

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More than that, keeping people in what Davey calls a state of “perpetual freakout” is not particularly productive. Human brains are not wired for it, and it requires way too many resources. When you’re in the midst of change, you’re stressed, and you can make decisions and mistakes that aren’t helpful.

The reaction to change has always been the same – some people are resistant, some people embrace it, others take it to an extreme. The challenge is that the nature, frequency, and magnitude of changes are exponentially higher, so the stakes are higher as well.

Two Types to Manage

There are two types of people who need to be managed through the change process. The first are those that Davey calls “too comfy to care.” They’ve been through too much, they think that they have limited capability to learn more, and they want to rest on what they’ve always done. The other group is described as “too anxious to act.” They’re so engaged in change that it’s difficult for them to get anything done. Both have to be managed differently to get optimal results.

“Too comfy to care” requires turning up the heat. Explain the stakes, what hangs in the balance. Give them a reason to see why the change is absolutely vital. More than that, it requires leaders to stop simply recognizing effort as good enough and to start recognizing the results. On the flipside, when those new behaviours are enacted, it’s necessary to recognize and reward them.

“Too anxious to act” requires – when necessary – turning down the heat a little bit. Lower the stakes – rather than focusing solely on the result, talk about the smaller things. Lower the pressure, and keep things manageable. The key is to keep this group focused on the here and now.

For both groups, data is key. Davey introduced research that shows that, when faced with an opposing view, simply talking about an issue is more likely to retrench someone in their default position. When presented with data and visuals, only then are they more likely to change. However, with that, the messaging has to be tailored. For those in the first group, it’s necessary to show a downward trend – that the existing ways of doing things isn’t sufficient. For the second group, it’s important to show that things are going well – that they don’t jump from change to change.

Points of Emphasis for Managers

One of the key takeaways is that change can’t simply be managed by meetings. Large groups are not conducive to get the message across in an effective way. Despite the fact that change brings a lot of effort, the focus needs to be on conversation, personalized to each individual team member.

But, more than that, there are things that leaders can do to help lead by example. First, make a concerted effort on where you put your attention – it’s likely the place that the team will place it’s attention as well. Shifting your attention will shift their attention.

Second, lean into the uncomfortable moments. If you deny the emotions that someone is dealing with, the issue gets bigger, not smaller. Embrace the fact that someone has issues, and deal with them so that they can move beyond the issue.

Finally, don’t forget to take care of your own resilience. Change is a stressful time for managers, too. Focus on your own energy – eat well, sleep, and exercise. It gives you the patience and energy to be the leader that people need. Interestingly, it’s the first thing to go out the window in challenging times.

It’s an exciting time to be a leader, but you need to know how to lead. That means knowing your team and how to get the best out of everyone, especially in challenging times. MW

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