Change efforts fail because we think we are objective

Imagine trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. This metaphor highlights two key challenges facing leaders trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of change in the twenty-first century. Firstly, change failure statistics suggest that many of our leaders have not experienced successful change in the last decade. As a result, they do not have a 'lid' or are using a 'lid' that no longer serves them.

Secondly, our backgrounds, education, preferences and beliefs often determine which pieces of the puzzle we pick-up, or even notice. Stereotypically, the CFO may focus disproportionately on the metrics for change, while the Head of Business Development creates the perfect strategy, and the HR Director concentrates on developing the workforce capability required for change.

Our subjectivity, in itself, is not the problem; we all interpret the world through our unique lenses. The bigger issue is that we assume we are objective while we act subjectively. There are now biologists who claim that 80% of the information we notice in the external environment comes from information already in our brain. Consequently, change efforts often fail or are rendered unsustainable because crucial pieces of information and intricate interrelationships are overlooked or ignored by leaders who are blinkered by the human condition.

A third challenge of objectivity is the misalignment between leadership intention and behavior. At an executive leadership summit, I asked the 500 delegates to close their eyes and raise their hands if they considered themselves to be of high integrity. When the delegates opened their eyes, every hand in the room was in the air. We then asked them to close their eyes again and raise their hands if they agreed that their colleagues shared their same high level of integrity. When they opened their eyes this time, only a third of the hands were raised. The insight reached by the delegates from this simple exercise was that objectivity is impossible since we judge ourselves by our intention, while we judge everybody else by their actions.

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