Turbulence in the economies of countries and in the financial arena in which business plays will never cease. What may have seemed a stable environment in which to plan future growth and corresponding budgets in the past, strategies that ensure predictable outcomes that give value to shareholders no longer exist. The best available research suggests that companies that will succeed in the turmoil are those that continue to address the context through adaptation and transformation. The biggest challenge they face, however, is not the environment in which their business operates, but in changing the behaviour of their employees. This needed behavioural change in employees (even behaviour change needed because of factors in one’s personal life) will most likely come less through analytical and logical thought and planning and more through seeing and feeling. It was Albert Schweitzer who once said: “Example is not the main thing influencing others. It is the only thing”.

Now, while it is seemingly obvious that clarity of thought is a fundamental tenet of large-scale change, like finding the right strategy as an example, it should be equally obvious that emotion underpins any change initiative, finds either positive or negative expression before, during and after the change and can alter the direction of the intended change if not guided adequately. In his book, The Heart of Change, John Kotter suggests: “But look at story after story of highly successful change methods and you will find a pattern that is closer to the heart of the matter. People are sensitive to the emotions that undermine change and they find ways to reduce those feelings. People are sensitive to the emotions that facilitate change and they find ways to enhance those feelings”. The emotions that undermine change include, amongst others, fear, false pride, anger, arrogance, pessimism, panic, cynicism, insecurity, exhaustion and anxiety. Emotions that facilitate change include, amongst others, passion, excitement, reality-based pride, faith, optimism, love, trust, urgency, hope and enthusiasm. When companies need to adapt and transform, business leaders need to capitalise on the latter (facilitating) emotions.

Leaders can:

  • Help employees understand the urgency of the required new behaviour – the reality of the business context should be clear and should demand different behaviour for a successful outcome
  • Demonstrate that concrete action will produce different results – help staff visualise the new required behaviour in concrete terms (it should be there to feel, touch and see)
  • Show the problem or solution in a dramatic, engaging, vivid or compelling way – role-plays help here to add meaning to a possibly otherwise conceptual principle
  • Develop live presentations, videos, and create new physical environments that demonstrate what is needed – modelling is helpful for employees to visualise what is expected from them
  • Create physical or digital symbols that speak to the change – statues, models, screen-savers, daily thoughts e-mailed to all employees, posters and other symbolic collateral can re-inforce what is needed
  • Recreate performance management requirements – what you are measured on is typically what you focus your energy on. When old demands are removed and new demands are instituted, employees focus differently
  • Tell stories and celebrate aligned behaviour – one of the most powerful emotional communication tools is story-telling. Stories should relate to successes, give people hope and acknowledge contribution
  • Measure and display progress – displayed improvement and other forms of progress, when charted and vividly marketed, forms encouragement for all employees. Real-time indicators may help here as visual displays

Emotional understanding and assimilation leads to changed behaviour. Leaders have a huge role to play in making the emotional content of any change process a reality amongst staff, through sharing and debriefing emotion that facilitates required behaviour. The resulting feelings produce a change of heart which, in turn, transforms behaviour.

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