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3 Leadership Traits that Block Change

Organizational development expert, executive coach and author of new title Leading Change, Paul Lawrence talks about leadership and change management.

Leaders who seek to impose their views through one-way communication rarely succeed. Successful leaders recognise that people must be given the opportunity to make their own sense of events and that this sense-making process is social. Successful leaders get out and about - listening and talking, shaping the change agenda over time, engaging in dialogue. Three leadership traits that get in the way of dialogue are:

1. A belief in hierarchy and the sanctity of positional power

I recall being asked by a leader in a bank how to engage his team in rolling out a new service philosophy. I suggested he asked people for their opinions. He shook his head doubtfully and said something along the lines of: "If I ask them what they think, then I'll have to do what they suggest, and I already know what needs to be done." To a leader who believes in the power of hierarchy engaging in dialogue is a waste of time. Why encourage people to explore new possibilities when key decisions have already been made? What’s the point in encouraging people to come up with ideas that they will only have to be dissuaded from? Of course, positional power enables a leader to get some things done but it is rarely sufficient to ensure the successful implementation of wide-scale change. There are many ways to resist change being imposed. If we are to engage fully with change then we want to be able to ask questions, make suggestions - be heard. However, leaders who believe in the sanctity of positional power may actively take steps to avoid listening.

2. A fear of conflict

How often do we see leaders deliver carefully pre-prepared messages as to the need for change, but in a forum that doesn't make it easy to ask questions? At times of change, every leader is expected to have a view and to voice that view, but people don't necessarily expect that view to make perfect sense. People don't expect their leaders to be superheroes, but they do expect them to listen, and to at least take into account what others think. Many leaders, however, hold a belief that they are expected to know all the answers. They don't want to put themselves into a situation in which they are likely to be challenged or asked hard questions. Effective change leaders are comfortable in their own skin. The idea that others don't think they're perfect holds no fear - they know they aren't perfect and they are happy to be seen as imperfect. They are open, transparent, authentic and courageous. They engage in dialogue with energy and enthusiasm.

3. A lack of curiosity

Ineffective leaders aren't that interested in what others think. This may be based on an overly simplistic view of the world, being stuck in a role that isn't enjoyable, or just a general lack of wonder and curiosity. Effective change leaders are curious. They want to know what others think. They are hungry for new perspectives and fresh insights that will help them further refine their own thinking. Because they are curious they ask questions and are genuinely interested in hearing the answers.

Impact on the organization

These traits play out across the organization over time. If the leader believes in the value of hierarchy then in time the organization as a whole is likely to come to believe in hierarchy and to depend on its leadership to come up with all the answers. Likewise, if the leader fears being asked difficult questions, the organization will stop asking difficult questions, believing that open and transparent dialogue is unlikely to be welcomed. On the other hand, if the leadership believe that everyone's view is important, that there is nothing to be afraid of in exchanging these different perspectives, and that the world is a fascinating place, then the whole organization is more likely to go about their business with enthusiasm and energy. The way leaders behave shapes the capacity of an organisation to effect wide-scale change.

Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn by the author.