Backseat Leaders: 10 Ways to Lead Change

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The Global Economy has turned the rules of leadership upside down and shaken them vigorously for good measure. Where there was once a fairly defined hierarchy—Boss A tells Worker B what to do and B does it—there’s now a flat landscape where everyone is expected to take the reins as needed. That means if B has an idea—a way to make a process more efficient or a new way to get customer feedback—he or she is allowed, even expected, to make it happen.

In other words, everyone is now a leader. This is great news for entrepreneurially minded employees—but it does pose a challenge for an employee who wants to create change but doesn’t "officially" run the show.

It can be more challenging for employee-led grassroots movements to spark change, but it can be done. While you may not have the long term resource commitment your boss does, you can still be proactive—and successful—if you have a clear vision and a firm commitment.

Being an advocate for change, regardless of where you fall in the organizational chart, can put you in the position of being a team leader—and someone who has great career potential. If you’d like to start sparking positive change within your organization read on for ten ways to be proactive:

1. Align individual priorities with organizational goals. No matter whereyou work, chances are your organizationhas overarching change goals it isworking to meet. Don’t just wait to betold what to do—look at those goalsand figure out what you can do as anindividual employee to support them.For instance, if your company justannounced that it is acquiring anotherto strengthen its product line, one ofyour individual priorities might be tolearn more about that company, itscustomers, and what it does. Youcould even ask your manager to present your ideas on how these findingswill impact your team. When youmake the link between what you doon a day-to-day basis and how thatcan support the overall change initiative,you’re showing dedication anddemonstrating that you want to help.This understanding works well duringany type of company-wide process ortechnological change, because you canbegin to recommend better ways ofdoing what you already do.

2. Learn to live with ambiguity. There is usually uncertainty during change. For instance, perhaps leadership hasn’t answered all your questions because not all of the details have been worked out yet. Executives may also have legal reasons for not releasing information. The point is, sometimes it’s in your best interest to roll with the ambiguity.

Of course you should raise your concerns and ideas, but then keep focused on the task at hand. However, if you feel that ambiguity is disturbing the workplace or if you see executives ignoring real concerns, let your manager know the downstream impact in a polite yet firm manner.

3. Understand your leadership style first. Even if your business card doesn’t have a powerful title, you are still a leader. And every leader has a particular style and specific strengths. It’s well worth your time to figure out what your style is, how it is seen by others, and how you can apply it to maximize your strengths. Most leadership assessments come down to four types of leaders: loud and proud; cheerful and optimistic; the strong, silent type; and data driven. You may also be a combination of them. In any case, knowing your own leadership style can help you effectively manage up the organization, coach employees and present, and lead future change projects. Your knowledge will also help you to recognize different leadership styles and thus frame your own communication to meet the needs of others.

4. Change what you can change: yourself. There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the soup. Similarly, too many leaders during change can make everything confusing and fragmented. If you are not in a position to formally influence the change, instead of trying to create a leadership role, take the opportunity to change your own attitude, behaviors, and beliefs. You can do this by setting realistic goals for yourself and then eliciting feedback on them from peers, managers, and perhaps even customers. "Remember that organizational change and personal change have strong similarities: You must clearly identify what you want to change, what the change looks like, and the specific steps and milestones for meeting them."

5. Influence what you can’t change: others. Even if you aren’t the one runningthe show, you can still influencethe direction of the change. And yourposition of being "one of them" couldeven give your opinions a boost withyour fellow employees! A good way tobuild trust and respect with your colleaguesis to give meaningful andtimely feedback with the sole intent ofincreasing effectiveness and job satisfaction.Cultivating this atmosphere ofopenness among your peers will helpyou influence change, because knowingothers’ motivations and interestswill help you to explain how thechange project will meet their needs.And don’t forget, another great way toinfluence change is to model thebehavior you want to see in others.

6. Become an early adopter and ally for change. Adapting early to change and being an ally for it is one simple and visible way of leading change when you are not running the show. This entails wanting change to happen and working toward that goal as soon as you have a logical explanation for a particular alteration or modification. The nice thing about being an ally and early adopter is that you aren’t seen as someone who is just giving face time to the change; you are actually doing it and helping to spread enthusiasm among your team members.

7. Create a community of peers. Many change projects have frontline staff or employee councils that serve as the eyes and ears of change. This group relays information, ideas, and concerns back to senior leaders so that the change plan can be adjusted as needed. If your organization has a change council, ask to be part of it. If it doesn’t, offer to help organize one. For change leaders, there is no replacement for direct feedback as to how communications, plans, and new projects are being perceived in the field.

8. Help other employees cope with change. Even if you’re excited about change,not everyone will be. Some team membersmight feel confused, angry, frustrated,or exploited. To make the transitioneasier for them, first, be on thelookout for signals that someone needshelp coping: absenteeism, depressed ordespondent behavior, or attacks onteam members. You might interveneone-on-one, or help steer a bickeringsession into a change session. You canalso help others cope through active listening.Try to act as a sounding board, and help the other person reduce emotionality and increase rational discussion.

9. Encourage communication among your peers. Remember, the sum of theparts is always greater than individualcontribution levels added together. So,regularly ask yourself how you canhelp build a better organization by diffusingconfusion, expediting the flowof information, or reaching out to others.Communication between peersand through management helps makeyour job easier in a number of ways. Ituncovers what is valuable to the businessand what is not, it minimizes theamount of time required to achievegoals, and it maximizes productivity.

10. Believe in the change and speak up. This isn’t so much about self-help asit is making positive ideas a reality! Aschange begins, start talking about howgreat it will be. And if change is not yethappening, talk about past accomplishmentsto capture the emotions, excitement,and energy your team needs toforge ahead. Whether you are a junioremployee or the CEO, show your enthusiasmfor the project. Change comesfrom the heart, not from corporate messaging.A sense of possibility for thefuture of the company is contagious!If you see that a change is neededbut you aren’t the leader, don’t just sitback and be told what to do—be proactive!When you show your commitmentin creative ways, you’ll be asked to runthe show sooner than you think.

First Published in Leadership Excellence, Oct. 2012.