Transformational change – Leadership … and reframing ambiguity as curiosity!

When an organisation  accepts that sticking to what has worked in the past is no longer an option,  it  will seek to re-organise, to adopt new strategies, systems and working practices and/or to radically change its culture. It is seeking “transformational change”. 

Yet such change will produce substantial “ambiguity”  – causing uncertainty – as there may well be many interpretations as to what the future will look like.  It is this “ambiguity” that causes employees to feel anxious about jobs, roles, organisation and hierarchy;  and it disempowers them as they foresee changes that will wash way the processes in which they  have invested  or that will eliminate the need for the skills that they have mastered.

 This negativity can undermine the whole project.  A recent study by IBM suggests that 41% of such change programmes are subsequently described as “unsuccessful”!

 So how should leaders prepare… and how should they behave through such a transformational change – if they are to  ensure that the programme is successful and that the business gains the advantages sought?

 Here’s a great 2017 paper by  Professor Julie Chesley and Avonlie Wilson of Pepperdine University – “Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders”. [NB There is an excellent free summary of the key content here .]

This study of organisations undergoing “radical organisational change” has looked at the level of mindfulness of the leaders involved and to understand the ways in which the leaders built resilience within staff in order that they embrace such change.

The study shows that in successful programmes:

·         The leaders themselves took time out to be mindful and to reflect; and to be engaged in their own therapy and coaching

·         The leaders were prepared to reach out to coaches, mentors and colleagues for advice or support in the face of challenges

The “less successful leaders” were more likely to seek support from family and friends and to seek wisdom from educational books (– I wonder if this reflects an unwillingness to be open about the issues that they are troubled by; and a reticence to admit that there are things they don’t know…  IMO: it may come from a lack of self-confidence or an fixed self-image, I suppose?).

 Yet, an absolutely key trait was the leaders’ attitude to “ambiguity”.  The effective leaders used methods to “reframe ambiguity” – removing bad connotations and reframing it as “a challenge” for staff; or by introducing it as an opportunity to “be curious” – to investigate and imagine – with a flexible and open mind; thereby encouraging staff to be objective and non-judgemental – and to ask questions.  In this way the leaders were building resilience within their staff.  This was accompanied by a willingness to involve employees in the change process and, more importantly, in the discussions around the search for the right approaches to the areas of ambiguity. At minimum, this creates “buy-in” and ownership; yet the culture of openness and curiosity seems to reduce apprehension and anxiety also.

 So it is clear that processing an  understanding the strategies to effectively manage ambiguity is important – given that ambiguity commonly arises during organizational change; and building reliance though mindfulness – and through “mindful leadership traits” – is a key to preparing for any transformational change programme. 

 Then, going forward, it is clear that “managing ambiguity and being more able to adapt” is essential for an organisation’s survival; and will avoid the possibility of being surpassed by a competitor that really can deal with ambiguity.

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