What leaders talk about when they talk about transformation.

What exactly is transformational change, and what kind of leadership qualities are required if one finds oneself in charge of a project which claims to be transformational? What might we learn about leadership from studying a sector, the Higher Educations sector in the UK, where there are profound changes going on, introduced by successive governments?

These are some of the questions I and colleagues, Dawn James, Jana Filosof, Kevin Flinn,  Rachelle Andrews, Phil Mason and Nigel Culkin from the University of Hertfordshire were commissioned by AdvanceHE (formerly the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education) to ask of the top teams from 6 UK universities. The report we produced will be published very soon.

In brief, what we found was that senior managers had no choice but to respond to changes in the political economy which compel universities to become more market-oriented. Irrespective of whether they were in favour of the new world in which they found themselves, managers were obliged to oversee projects of adaptation and change perhaps in excess of what the sector may have been used to in previous decades. So one thing we noticed about senior colleagues in the universities we visited is that they admitted that they sometimes found themselves taking responsibility for change projects about which they felt ambivalent. This ambivalence was sometimes to do with their doubts about the nature of the changes, particularly if they had grown up in a world where a university education was considered to be a public good; to what degree were they part of changes which would fundamentally change the sector to its detriment? We imagine that this is a feeling common to many senior managers in the rest of the public sector and beyond. However, irrespective of their ambivalence, we interviewed no one who thought that the correct response was to do nothing.

One insight about senior managers becoming responsible for sometimes large-scale projects of change, then, is that those in charge may have to live with contradictions and doubts about what they are doing and how they are obliged to do it. The extent to which they can share this doubt publicly will always be a matter of judgement.

Next, experienced managers expressed themselves doubtful about the ‘transformational change’ discourse, which they mostly tried to adopt lightly. On the one hand they knew they were obliged to give reasons for any significant change process, particularly with potentially sceptical and change-weary staff. There must be some kind of promise of change for the better. However, many respondents were sufficiently experienced to know that all change processes create winners and losers, can pose significant challenges to identity and may provoke very strong emotions. The bigger the promise of unalloyed change for the good, the bigger the potential for disappointment amongst staff if they fail to see the benefits realised. A number of respondents also mentioned that they felt under pressure to bring about change even if nothing specific was being asked of them. If they had become a senior manager, then why weren’t they changing something? Holding the idea of transformational change lightly also means not jumping into a change project in order to be seen to be doing something.

With detachment from the discourse of transformational change came an accompanying doubt about the role of senior manager or leader as a heroic individual with exceptional qualities. Many respondents good give examples of leaders who had made a big impact on them, or on the groups they led, even ones they considered to be charismatic. So they did not offer an argument that leaders don’t matter. However, they often held a nuanced understanding about what the role of leading and managing complex change involved. For them it was more to do with the skills of story-telling, sense-making, obstacle-clearing and perspective-taking. If change processes radically reconfigure sets of relationships, then paying attention to relationships, perhaps reknitting, repairing and redescribing them, is at the heart of what a manager of organizational change is doing.

Conscious that they too are caught up in the change processes, with perhaps an obligation to demonstrate progress against metrics, many respondents emphasized the skills which are needed in groups, including the more or less explicit exercise of power. Working in groups requires political nous about when to reveal things, when to express doubt and uncertainty and when to press the advantage or give in. One insight that came up again and again is that experienced leaders of change projects may have an enhanced ability to sit with doubt and uncertainty for longer, which can be difficult to maintain in the face of a group seeking certainty.

More, many of the respondents acknowledged that profound changes in their institutions had often provoked strong feelings in employees caught up in change projects: these might include the whole spectrum of excitement, anger, anxiety or confusion. So they had to take these feelings seriously, including dealing with the strong feelings associated with being exposed to the strong feelings of others. In other words, being at the forefront of a change project often means having to sit in the fire and to endure one’s own strong reactions to what is going on. At the heart of change is the renegotiation of identity in the back and forth of gesture and response, calling out mutual recognition and misrecognition. One respondent warned: ‘If they don’t recognise themselves, they might comply, they might obey, but it’s not leadership: it’s coercion, and that’s something different.’

One of the key places to pay attention to strong emotion, uncertainty, politics and practical judgment is on the top table itself. Many senior management teams seem to have developed a variety of ways for the members to communicate with each other informally, including having off-agenda sessions where people have an opportunity simply to say what’s on their minds. In a way, one might say that the best place to start to address the experience and skills needed for complex change projects is in the team with the greatest responsibility for the change. A reflective top team is a good resource for thinking about and supporting developments that are being undertaken in the wider institution.

A number of managers had found creative ways of taking these off-agenda discussion opportunities into their institutions to break out of the monologic ‘town hall meetings’. These might be surgeries to hear people’s representations, or making it known that a leader would be in the café on campus on the same day at the same time every week. If leaders want to know what people are thinking about, then they do well to make themselves available in a variety of fora and in a variety of ways.

Respondents were more or less convinced that organizational culture was something which they could change consciously. Some thought that the culture of the Academy predated them, and would outlast them. Others thought that some of the changes they took responsibility for could undermine a university’s very purpose, and this caused them anxiety. In any case, most were aware that they were as much acted upon as acting, and that culture remains one of those grand organizational terms which is more talked about than understood.

Interviewing respondents from six different HEIs gave us some insights into the complex responsive processes of leading change in organisations, which seems to be  about leading in uncertainty, and requires political, rhetorical and relational skills, as well as knowledge of self.



3 thoughts on “What leaders talk about when they talk about transformation.

  1. Pingback: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life. | Complexity & Management Centre

  2. Pingback: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life. | Reflexivepractice

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