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The Top 9 Leadership Mistakes

People Make When They Are Leading Change

In all my years leading change and working with leaders who are leading change I have never seen a leader get it 100% right 100% of the time, some get pretty close, and have spent years and years honing this skill. There is a lot to do and to think about when we are leading change, every change initiative is different, each team has it's own dynamic and each individual impacted by the changes is exactly that, an individual, so we shouldn't be surprised.

That doesn't, however, mean we shouldn't be aiming to do an excellent job of leading change, instead, I think it gives us a chance to learn from others and make our own and different mistakes!

So, are you ready to get curious about the things that leaders often get wrong when they are leading change and make some choices about how to avoid those mistakes yourself?

A personal retrospective on what leaders get wrong when leading change

I've been having a number of conversations about project retrospectives and reflecting on some of the tools and techniques they use, and dipping back into Ken Burrell's book Learning Lessons from Projects, and decided to do a one-person retrospective on the where I have seen leaders go wrong when leading changes. 

And that was the first thing I had to get over was the negative associations that exist with deciding something is wrong. I know none of the managers I've worked with set out to get things wrong and all did their best and with the absolute best intentions. And I have to admit that I stalled at the thought of labelling their actions as wrong. It's also a belief of mine that there is no one right way to do things and different approaches can work, so who am I to judge?

However, over my 30 years of leading change and working with leaders leading change, I have seen things not work and there are however traps that I have seen many leaders falling into. And it's those I want to talk about in this episode. And yes I'm also going to share some thoughts on how to avoid those traps so you can take those great intentions and turn them into great leadership when it comes to leading thought change.

The traps that in my experience catch leaders and managers fall into one of three groups, Relationships, Communications or Prioritisation. Some traps are super sneaky and can come up in more than one of those categories too!

The Relationship Traps that cause leadership mistakes 

Let's start by looking at the relationship traps.

Our relationships and our team's performance are built on a foundation of trust. Our teams need to be able to trust us and we need to be able to trust them. When we don't have that trust everything is harder, people become less engaged in their work, they, and we spend lots of time checking up on each other, and performance suffers. And all that is before we put change into the mix. Building and demonstrating trust through our actions is something we always need to be doing as a leader and the first relationships trap that I see leaders falling into when they are leading change is not having built strong and trusting relationships before the change starts, and the second one is damaging those relationships as soon as it does. 

If you think of trust like a bank account you can make deposits in those relationships or you can make withdrawals. This is however a bank account with heavy penalties if you go overdrawn. When we demonstrate trust in our team and demonstrate that we are trustworthy we make deposits. However when we do something to undermine that trust, or which someone perceives as a lack of trust we make a withdrawal, even if our intentions were good or we didn't realise we were doing it.

One common thing I see managers doing during change is setting out to protect their team and that is a great intention. How they do that however can see them falling into a trap. If they shield their team from the truth, or are intentionally vague, that withholding of information will be noticed. Our teams know when we are acting differently, when something's not right and we are worried, and not knowing what or why becomes like the unknown monster under the bed when you were a kid, much bigger and scarier than it actually is, we have all seen Monsters Inc right? 

When we withhold information we make a huge withdrawal from our trust accounts with our teams.

The chances are that the people in your team are bright and intelligent people, after all that's why they are in your team. When you are leading change it's very easy to fall into the trap of treating them like children and working as if you are the parent. At the start of the change process, you probably do know more about what's happening than them, but instead of treating them like a child, telling them what to think and do and possibly slipping into micromanagement, what if you treated them like the capable adult they are? Instead of getting a belligerent teenage reaction and a difficult relationship to manage going forward, the chances are you will get considered opinions and support building back to productivity.

These traps can be avoided by building up your reserves of trust ahead of any changes, and by thinking about how you can put building and maintaining your relationships with your team at the heart of what you do during the change. 

The final relationship trap I see leaders falling into is making assumptions about how people in their team are going to react, what they are feeling or what they might do. Sometimes this is because they genuinely do know their team really well, sometimes it is because they are projecting their own concerns and questions onto the team and sometimes it's because they are so deeply unaware of their own impact on the team that they are actually applying a theory to those reactions and assuming its 100% correct. 

Whatever the motive and whatever lies behind it, those assumptions can lead to many many challenges. Almost every leader I have worked with on a change programme has by the end of the programme commented on how they were surprised by someone's reaction. It's going to happen and if we are making decisions based on our assumptions, we are going to get it wrong more often than we need to, cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary stress and damage our relationships with our team.

And this trap has a simple-sounding but harder to implement solution - it's best solved by practising your curiosity - by asking great questions and finding out what is going on for someone, listening with empathy, understanding their concerns and positive expectations, and then making your choices based on the facts you discover rather than your assumptions.

The Communication Traps that lead to leadership mistakes

Next up let's look at the Communication Traps, and these are plentiful.

Our words, said and unsaid, how we say them and how we live up to them all have an impact. And being unaware of that impact is probably one of the most common communication traps I've seen.

We need to remember that while we share a huge amount of commonality in language and how we communicate based on our shared experiences, everyone we talk to has different experiences, beliefs and values, different things they associate with a word, so we need to choose our words carefully and be ready to explain differently if required.

A classic variation on this trap - and one leaders can fall into at any time, not just when they are leading change - and that's saying one thing and doing another. We may have all done this and we have almost certainly had it done to us - for example when someone says their conversation with you is the most important thing and then promptly answers a call or email during that conversation. As well as being totally annoying, even less blatant examples than this send very mixed messages.

And it doesn't have to be our actions either, it can be in how we say what we say, there is a huge difference between I'm excited about this and I'm excited about this. It can be helpful to this of this as the music that accompanies the lyrics and the dance you are doing to it. Something doesn't add up when you see someone waltzing to a punk rock track about a puppy, we need to make sure our words, mood and actions all tell the same story.

Another communication trap I see leaders falling into, especially when they are part of a formal communication, maybe a cascade of communication or a big town hall type presentation, is not being clear what is expected of them. Maybe they are too scared to find out and they avoid it, or maybe they avoid it because they are worried about being asked something they don't know, or maybe they don't want to be the one sharing bad news. This isn't a time to get defensive about what you are communicating.

Communicating around change is uncomfortable and at times you will feel vulnerable. And in that vulnerability comes the way out of the trap - when you start asking questions, being curious about how others are doing things, what they are saying and what they are thinking, you will find a good way through for you and the people you are communicating to. Remember until it's two way it's not communicating it's just telling. And as a bonus when you take this approach you are making a deposit into that trust account we talked about.

Part of this is that I see leaders falling into is not asking for help when they need it. Not everyone is a natural communicator, not everyone has had any training on how to do this, not everyone has experienced this before. Balancing the message you have to give and sticking to the corporate line while customising it to be meaningful for your team takes experience and expertise.

As leaders of change, we often feel compelled to be strong and forget that our teams need us to be human. Asking for help should not be seen as a weakness, practising what you are going to say, how you are going to say it and getting feedback is a great idea, talking through what you are communicating with your boss or those leading the change to make sure you understand it can also really help.

The Prioritisation Traps and the mistakes leaders make with them

So those are the common Relationship and Communication Traps I see, let's take a look at the final category - Prioritisaltion Traps.

As leaders, we are busy even before it comes to leading change, so it's not really surprising that a trap I've seen many leaders fall into is not putting enough priority on the changes and leading them. Sometimes for years we have been drilling people on and rewarding them for achieving performance targets. What incentive is there for them to stop doing that and make time to lead the changes if they even recognise there is a need? 

As leaders of change it's important we explain why things are changing as well as what is changing and that we have open discussions about what the priorities are during change. Change takes time and resources, we need to make sure we know what is expected of us as we lead the change.

So once we have avoided the trap of not being aware of what our priorities need to be, as leaders we need to be mindful of the next trap - not making time for the priorities. We know for successful change to happen productivity will dip for a while, we need to build that into our plans and set clear and realistic expectations with our teams around it too rather than trying to cram everything into our already full agendas.

As a leader, you will have your preferred way of managing your priorities, make sure you have made adequate time for the changes and then add in some more to cover the fact we all tend to underestimate how much time and effort making change happen takes!

And the final prioritisation trap we are going to look at is having confusing change priorities. Almost universally every company I have worked for or with has been trying to do too many changes all at once. The trap that this makes for leaders is that it can appear that their change priorities are confusing and it's hard to know where to focus. If they focus on one more than another or there is too much hype about a particular change, how do people know what they really need to make happen?

There is a skill to bringing all those changes together in a unified and easy to understand way. We are looking to link all the changes to our company objectives and mission so people can see how they interact. That is something we spoke about in Episode 16, and if you want a refresher why not check it out after this episode!

Summary & Taking Action

So in this episode, we have talked about the 9 most common traps I see leaders of change falling into.

There are the Relationship Traps, not building strong relationships before a change programme starts, damaging the trust in those relationships while change is happening and making assumptions about how others are going to react. We talked about trust as a bank account, some ways to make deposits and how important it is to be curious, ask great questions and listen to the answers as ways to protect ourselves from those traps.

Staying Curious and listening is also one of the solutions to the Communications Traps we discussed. We need to make sure we are avoiding the three big traps here - not being aware of the impact of what we are communicating, our words how we say them and what we do being disjointed, and not being human, vulnerable or showing empathy when we are communicating.

Finally, we talked about the three Prioritiseation Traps of not being aware of the priority we need to put on this, not making time for leading the change and leading so many changes that the focus of each becomes blurred or even lost.

The things I share in this podcast are based on my experience. Some will be more relevant to you than others and it's up to you to decide what you are going to do with them. My hope is that you will find something you can take and apply. But that's up to you and it's exactly what being a Curious Choice Leader is all about, getting curious, building your understanding and then making some choices about what's best for you, your team and your business. 

So the question I would like to leave you with is 

Which traps are you in danger of falling into and how are you going to make sure you dont?