Having spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of weeks in the air I’d like to ask you a question: how many times when you fly on a plane do you ask yourself, “might this be my last flight?” I know for me it’s at least four. Not including turbulence. Now I’d like you ask yourself how many times you ask the same question when you get behind the wheel of your car, or for those of you who don’t drive, when you sit alongside someone who is? Virtually never?
I drive a car far more than I fly, and while I know the statistics say that I’m far more likely to die in the car than the plane, logic and rational thought make no difference. No matter how many times I fly I still have the thought, this might be it. It’s illogical, it’s pointless and yet I can’t help it.
What is going on?
Change and control
A psychotherapist might say I’m having a very rational reaction to an extraordinary situation – being locked in a metal tube that shoots along at hundreds of miles an hour using a mode of transport that is supposed to be reserved for birds. But driving a car is pretty extraordinary too if you look at it that way.
Common sense might shed some light too – we are more risk averse when we feel we are not in control. This begins to shed some light. It’s precisely the lack of control on a plane – someone else is at the controls – that makes us have these thoughts, despite rationally knowing we are far safer than when we get behind the wheel of a car.
I think this is hugely important for leaders to understand is it pertains so acutely to how we approach change. As you lead your organisation through turbulent times; reorganising, repositioning and reframing, how willing are people to follow your lead? If we accept that we are more risk averse when we aren’t at the controls, what can you do to help people feel empowered and in charge?
Making change attractive
In my experience, organisational change is something that is deemed necessary by leadership, defined by senior management, implemented by middle management and tolerated by the general population. This might be a bleak view but the question if forces us to ask is how are we helping people change? Organisational change might involve new structures but it’s people who carry it out so is tolerating it enough? Not to teach grandmothers to suck eggs but people are the key; and people don’t like change. If you can make people feel like they have some say, some agency in the change that they are being asked to implement, they will be far more likely to go along with it.
It usually isn’t practical to allow everyone in an organisation to have a say in what the change looks like but if you can give people a voice, or find way to make them feel like they are being heard, they stop feeling like passengers and begin to feel more like pilots. For the those of you at the top, who are the pilots, you have to make sure the door to the cockpit is open. Make sure that people can see the course you are heading, know that the plane is not going to fall out of the air and that you hear their voices if they want to talk to you. “It starts at the top” is a cliché but like so many clichés, it’s also true.
If you want change to stick, make sure people can hear you and make sure you can hear the people.
NB. For some further reading, do take a look at for “Coaching for Change Leadership” in the the Coaches Toolkit of this website.