'How do you create a sense of urgency in positive approaches to change?'

This was the question posed to me recently by an HR Director taking up a new post with a big change agenda. He was attracted to the idea of positive change, but working with an organization with a long and successful history, he was challenged about how to galvanise the workforce into engaging with the necessary changes. I thought it was a great question and it has stayed with me.

It has long been known that negative emotions such as fear, despair or anger can act as a spur to change. Leaders and change consultants have sometimes built on this knowledge by deliberately creating these emotions at work, by ‘creating the burning platform for change’.

 

Such tactics may well produce energy for change, however there are some drawbacks.

·      The energy may not be accompanied by much creativity: the aim is to avoid, not to create.

·      The energy may not be very sustainable: once the threat is seen to have receded the escape        behaviour ceases and old patterns reassert themselves.

·      It tends to produce more compliant behaviour than active commitment.

·      It can create a very unhealthy and unhappy working atmosphere.

 

So what is the alternative, how do positive approaches to change create urgency? I think we probably need to rephrase the question to how do they create energy and drive for change? How do they create motivation and momentum for change?

 

We are drawn towards an attractive future

Rowland and Higgs (2008) in their research into how change actually happens (as opposed to the story we have about how change happens) discovered four key things that made a difference to the success of change efforts. One of these was the ability of the leaders to create a magnetic pull towards an attractive future. This I think is at the heart of the answer to our question.

Positive and appreciative approaches to change major on creating hope, optimism, group cohesion, strong visions of attractive possible future states, desire and ambition. They strengthen relationships, build social capital, create interdependencies and identify shared goals or aspirations. They build trust, illuminate shared values, and have a positive effect on motivation and morale.

In short they create a ‘together we can’ understanding of their collective abilities to influence outcomes. This, combined with co-created aspirations for, and visions of, future states, forms the basis of the energy for change.

 

The tortoise and the hare

A desire for change created from these more positive emotional states may take a little longer to release, discover, create or build, but it is likely to be more sustainable as a force for change. Working with groups you can see when a particular idea about, or vision for, the future really starts to take hold. It won’t go away. It exerts a continuing fascination, an attraction. This creates its own urgency: a desire to engage others with this powerful aspiration. It acts as a powerful light in the hazy vision of the emerging future, allowing for constant re-orientation. It is a pull towards the future and as such tends to create a much more sustainable energy over time than the push energy created by an awareness of the need to avoid present danger. An awareness of present danger can make us jump fast and without thought. An aspiration to achieve a desirable future state can draw us ever onwards.

 

More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.

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Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at Our Approach to change.

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