How effective leaders deal with “push back”

I saw a cartoon recently that hit home. It was a picture of birds sitting on a telephone pole that had several layers. The birds at the top were nice and clean. The further down the layers, the birds were covered with…well…bird poop. It is a parody on an organizational chart where the poop travels downstream, and those at the bottom feel pretty yucky.

I get that. There’s always someone above you in the organization pushing down initiatives, projects, and other accountability processes, and the further they are pushed, the more overwhelmed are those at the bottom.

What happens when those at the bottom say, “Enough?” They “push back.” Pushback can take many different forms, and each form presents a different challenge to leadership. Basically “push back” means, “Nope, ain’t gonna happen; at least until I get comfortable.” It may take the form of silence, or of arguing or even of passive-aggressive behavior that nods, then goes about doing something things as usual.

The way a leader handles pushback has a dramatic impact on a leader’s credibility, both to those above and to her employees.

Think about it this way: someone “higher up” demands a process change and communicates the change and the myriad accompanying tasks to the leader who then must deliver them to staff.

What happens next depends on the magnitude and impact of the change on the daily lives of employees. Generally, the more significant the change, the more pushback occurs. And let’s face it, there is usually more than one bird sitting on top of the org chart passing down requests and demands. Staff groups like HR, finance, marketing, legal and others speak for “the top” in their area of expertise, and all those “speakers” can get very loud. (more…)

It’s Not a Joke. HR Can (and Should) Facilitate Change


I published a post on April 1 titled HR Should Lead Change; it apparently was seen by many as an April Fools’ joke – that HR does not/should not/cannot lead organizational change initiatives. I saw everything from “it’s not HR’s role,” to “HR doesn’t have the skills or credibility to do this.” For those of us in the profession, this is a disappointing indictment.

My justification was sound; organizational change is about people; HR should be as well. Change guru John Kotter says that 70% of change efforts fail and he challenges change leaders to “engage their workforce effectively” in order to have a better chance of success. Why wouldn’t that be the work of HR?

Many of the comments to my post came from process experts who follow a well-defined path to organizational change.  I have worked with several of these processes, and they do a good job of gaining executive sponsorship, creating and managing process steps, and ensuring completion. Some consider the human aspects of change and introduce tools such as the “change curve” to help leadership understand and respond to the emotions that go along with change.

However, in my years of experience as a Chief Learning Officer, I have found a significant element missing in organizational change processes and that is the “macro” view of the change and the impact it has on all things people. This is the role HR must fulfill. The Human Resources team has a unique vantage point that provides a 30k foot view of all of the work and people of the organization.
Here are five key roles that HR can and should play in organizational change.

Monitor the culture and the brand

External change consultants are often engaged by organizations for help with major change, and generally introduce their own brand of change management. These change models become a vocabulary for the organization and define work processes to be used.

Each organization has a culture and a set of values. They may be plastered on walls, cups and t-shirts, or they may be simply the way people behave. Culture and values are messaging units, communicating to employees and leaders what is important to the organization and help frame decisions within those values.

We have enough information overload today that we do not need more. Yet change models recognize the need to have a foundation of culture and values of the organization so they introduce their own. The problem here is that the consultant’s idea of the organizations culture and values may or may not align to existing programs and in may create more confusion than alignment.

A key role for HR in facilitating change is ensuring that the models, vocabularies and processes are consistent where consistency is important and that they align to the organization’s strategy. As an example, change management initiatives often create project teams. Critical questions HR needs to ask, and answer are:

  • Do the performance management program and total rewards strategy reflect a focus on team or is individual performance the key factor in promotions and bonuses?
  • Does an “executive sponsor” know the critical role she plays? Executive who find themselves in sponsorship roles should be proven change leaders, and if not, need a crash course in expectations.
  • Are “project leaders” given the task on top of their regular job, so that they burn out quickly or are they thoughtfully re-deployed for a finite period of time, with new opportunities awaiting them upon completion?

Develop change leadership capability

Change is here to stay and the rate of change is growing exponentially. Human capital strategies lead The Conference Board’s 2015 Top CEO Challenges in the US and globally.  Who can address these crucial issues? Human Resources, in partnership with operational leaders, can make the development of skilled leaders at all levels of leadership a priority.

Developing and deploying effective change leaders serves several purposes. Change leaders can be deployed across organizational boundaries to share ideas and broaden exposure to other parts of the organization.  Change leaders have great visibility in the organization, and have the opportunity to showcase their talent and their results to executive leadership. This, as much as any leadership class, develops future leaders.

Influence sharing across units

Larger organizations generally have multiple change projects underway at the same time.  The Human Resources team can serve as a repository for these projects, sharing talent, ideas and results across the organization and avoid the possibility of change occurring in silos.

Providing diverse thinking in staffing projects, creating selection processes for project assignments, and developing a knowledge management process where ideas and results can be shared is an important contribution HR can make, and is the beginning of developing a learning organization.

Simplify and consolidate

Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report found that more than half of their survey respondents currently have “programs in place to simplify work to drive productivity gains and relieve unnecessary and counterproductive pressures on employees.” Each of these programs is, in reality, a change initiative. Add these to technology upgrades, mergers and acquisitions, strategic refresh, quality programs and everyone’s day job, it quickly becomes overwhelming.

With multiple change initiatives underway, it is likely there is duplication of effort, or overuse of resources; you know those few people who get tagged for every project. HR can support the organization by mapping the scope of change and resources involved, and by facilitating collaboration and cooperation at the executive level.

Develop a “change ready” workforce

In a LinkedIn comment, Business Capability Architect James Dowling told the story of an executive team finalizing their launch of a major ERP change project. When the CEO asked if everyone was on board, they agreed they were. When he asked if anyone had concerns, the HR Director simply asked “Do we have all the capabilities that we need as a leadership team and as a company to execute the project?”

Dowling said “Heads around the table moved more side to side than up and down. The powerful question had profound results. A pre-launch project was launched that identified organization capability weaknesses and [the HR director] launched a program to get them in place before engaging in the technology part of the investment.”

Most change leadership models incorporate learning new skills. Where HR can be most influential is in identifying the qualities, knowledge and competence needed to build a resilient and agile workforce. This is bigger than simply learning new skills.

A new challenge for HR

These five key roles can position the Human Resources team as a true steward of the human resources of the organization.  Each of these roles is, or should be, part of any human resources knowledge base, and should be a core competency at the HR executive level.

Change is a heavy burden for organizations to bear. It threatens the workforce, it challenges the leaders, and it creates more work for an already busy organization. Initiating change is a strategic business decision that deserves thoughtful consideration on the impact, resources and return on the investment.

This is an opportunity for HR to take that 30k foot view, and facilitate good dialogue across, up and down the organization, eliminate duplicate efforts, prepare the workforce and monitor the return. After all, the burden of change sits heavily on the human resources of the organization.