Stuck in a rut? Leading change without the managerialese


Section of a Leadership strategy diagram on a used blackboard

Convincing employees of the need for change is a tough task. Organisational cultures are often surprisingly persistent, and years after a merger the formerly separate portfolios can still feel like semi-autonomous entities.

Problematic habits can likewise remain long after a new leader is parachuted in to clean up a dysfunctional organisation. Disgruntlement at restructuring is common and employees can sense when the leadership isn’t being straight about the reasons behind it.

“People will clearly see you are walking the talk, but also talking the talk you believe in.”

Handle change in the wrong way and your organisation may be suffering problems years down the track.

The best way to convince people to come along with you for the ride is “to really give a sense of authenticity rather than just mouthing management speak”, says Peter Shergold, who as former head of organisations including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Public Service Commission has seen a few restructures and culture change projects in his time.

“I have always found it’s quite helpful to give real world examples,” he tells The Mandarin. “Particularly where there have been mistakes that one can learn from, to personalise it, saying ‘here is an example where in hindsight I could have done this better’.”

It’s important to communicate that “we’re all in this together, we are all learning this together, rather than dealing at the level of managerialese,” says Shergold, who as Australian Public Service Commissioner was a big advocate of making the public service more responsive and more connected to the rest of society.

One of his tips is to write your own speeches. Just make sure you’re being consistent in your messaging — your central point may have to be repeated many times to completely sink in.

“I have never found it acceptable in giving a major speech when sending out key messages in the public sector to have something that is constructed by others,” he explains.

“When I speak I need to be sure what I am saying is me. People will clearly see you are walking the talk, but also talking the talk you believe in. They’ll see it’s coming from your heart and not written by others.

“It’s much better to give fewer communications that are from yourself than more speeches written by others.”

Drop the negativity

It’s important when coordinating change that departments don’t simply tell staff their culture is bad, says Professor Jenny Stewart of UNSW’s ADFA School of Business.

“If you say to people — and I know this has been the case in a few departments — ‘you have a bad culture and need to change in this way’, I guess this might be true, but it assaults people at the level of their personal values and traditions and history,” the public sector change management expert explains.

Telling employees ‘you are wrong’ — or you are too bureaucratic, or too rigid — “is quite counterproductive”, she thinks.

“When people say ‘your culture is no good’, it’s like telling people ‘you are no good’. Without saying much about it they close ranks around their culture.”

She’s unsure why some cultures are so difficult to alter, whether it’s the functions of the people who work there, or just the continuation of individuals. “Science, for example, has been booted around from one agency to another, but somehow they’ve kept their little world together,” she says.

“It’s a powerful and consoling thing for some people. For managers wanting to create new organisations it must be infuriating. As a change motif, ‘the culture of this agency must change’, ‘we need to be business people not engineers’, whatever it may be — Defence has been subjected to that — it never quite works, people like their culture.”

Perhaps it’s because sometimes the staff can smell a rat. Even with an effective communicator in place it can be difficult to convince staff to come on board, such as when restructuring happens for nakedly political reasons.

“It’s often a demonstration of power rather than a management need,” says Stewart. These sorts of reorganisations get people’s backs up and they can see managers ignoring the elephant in the room.

“There’s a general view that all change must be good, almost self justifying, but I think that’s certainly not true,” she argues.

Radical vs incremental change

When it becomes widely known that there are real problems inside an organisation, there might be an appetite to jump in and push hard for fast results — the treatment of women in the Defence Force comes to mind.

When it comes to the choice between incremental and radical culture change, Shergold says it all depends on the organisation and the reforms required.

“When I was asked to head up the Department of Education it was clear from talking to colleagues as well as the minister that there needed to be changes in the organisation, particularly in its willingness to look outwards. I decided within a few weeks to hold an all-staff meeting and give a major speech to communicate a new management approach, a new way of doing it,” he recalls.

“By contrast in PM&C my approach was to be more incremental, to get my feet under the desk first and spend a couple of months talking to people before I used the position to send out messages from the top.

“It all depends on how you come in and what you think is required. I do think it’s important when talking about a department or the public service as a whole to go around and talk to people before you start to give your own presentation.”

The successful culture change projects Stewart has witnessed — she mentions Allan Hawke, who formerly led the Departments of Defence, Veterans Affairs and Transport and Regional Services, as well as Shergold’s time at the APSC — were bedded down by effective communication and calm persistence.

“The thing that unites them is they communicated the change in such a way that people felt they owned it themselves. They could see a rationale,” she explains.

“They didn’t try to do it all overnight. They didn’t buy the argument that there is a crisis and we must do this urgently. They thought, there is a need but we don’t need to be overwhelmed by this.

“People who want change tend to overdo the crisis — if we don’t do this we’re history. They panic themselves and communicate the panic to other people. Whereas these guys were able to keep things moving, and they talked endlessly, absolutely endlessly.”

Being honest about constant change

An increasingly core feature of change management is that these days change is constant — but this is not always full acknowledged.

One of the things that bugs public sector management expert Professor Deborah Blackman is the common implication that change will end at some point.

“Every time we have change, we implicitly tell people it’s going to stop, because it’s a ‘change management’ process. Of course that’s completely ridiculous,” she contends.

“The assumption you’re going to be the same and then you’ll change, that’s stagnation. Most of the time it should be happening in an ongoing manner. What we need to ask is: how do we make sure have the skills to be able to handle change all the time?”

Public sector HR consultant and academic Tanya Hammond agrees.

“We need to stop building up that change will be done and dusted, but accept it’s part of what we do. Change is normal,” she says.

“You have to respond to society in the public sector, and society is constantly changing. There is that sense of ‘it’s done and now it’s business as usual’. I don’t think that’s the reality anymore. We need to constantly be ready to change and adapt.”

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