Catalysing a Culture of Continuous Change: Transformational Leadership
One of the fundamental tensions underlying many discussions about organisational change is that “it would not have been necessary if people had done their jobs right in the first place”. This idea leads to the belief that “planned change is usually triggered by the failure of people to create continuously adaptive organisations” .
Continuous change relies on “ongoing, evolving, and cumulative”  development, but how do you develop a culture whereby this becomes the norm? We propose that through transformational leadership, managers can in fact catalyse and then curate a culture that invites continuous change.
In 1994 Bass and Avolio proposed the development of the ‘Four I’s’ as a management strategy that looked at the development of transformational leadership as: Idealised influence, Inspirational motivation, Intellectual stimulation and Individualised consideration . They believed that management should “stimulate their followers’ efforts to be innovative and creative by questioning assumptions, reframing problems and approaching old situations in new ways” . Within transformational leadership, followers are “encouraged to try new approaches, and their ideas are not criticised because they differ from the leaders’ ideas” . Through transformational leadership, managers are creating a psychologically safe space whereby the ‘fear of failure’ is alleviated.
The Dark Side of Success
Successful organisations often focus on recreating the business processes that led to their initial success . However, this fixation often results in a sense of apathy from organisational leaders in developing new and innovative models of success. The proverb ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ rings true within many organisational settings. However, high performance operates as a double-edged sword; as well as creating a sense of apathy for innovation, it also generates an inherent ‘fear of failure’ that can stifle employee creativity and organisational development.
Globally, organisations are competing for center stage to reach the pinnacle of ‘success’ within their respective industries, but what if this pursuit is one of the limiting factors hindering their very development? Organisations such as Facebook have amended their business models from ones of innovation and organic development to acquisition-led growth   . In a bid to stay relevant within the market have they, in fact, lost their competitive edge? We propose that organisations fuelled by a fear of failure stifle the very development that they so desperately crave.
While this is a global issue that is perhaps most apparent in the tech industries, it in fact surfaces in all sectors, at all levels of organisations. Within the context of Asia, a continent that has experienced a vast amount of growth over the past few decades, this theory - that organisations fuelled by a fear of failure stifle the very development that they so desperately crave - can be used to argue that the continuous development of people in the APAC region should be a top – if not the top–priority.
Furthermore, given that organisations in Asia operate within an achievement-orientated culture , creating an environment where employees feel safe and fear of failure is alleviated is particularly important. We are taught from an early age that our success hinges on hard work, talent and achievement. In order to achieve these goals our performance is all too often defined by tasks that will either receive reward or ridicule. This can ingrain in us a fundamental fear of failure that results in a lack of experimentation and innovation , and a mindset such as this invariably results in an unwillingness to make ourselves vulnerable.
The paradox, of course, is that in order to succeed we must be free to fail .
Psychological Safety is the Key
Psychological safety is the key to innovation; operating with a lack of psychological safety arrests the development of the human capital within the organisation and halts creativity. Amy Edmonson discusses the importance of the ‘freedom to fail’ in creating psychologically safe organisations, suggesting that “we need to understand failure is not something to fear or try to avoid, but as a natural part of learning and exploration” .
One of the key pillars to psychological safety in the workplace is trust. There is an interrelation between trust, information exchange and creativity in so much that information exchange breeds trust, which, in turn, increases creativity and conversely trust stimulates information exchange, which, in turn, increases creativity . However, it is the leader who is responsible for creating an environment where trust can flourish. By implementing the ‘Four I’s’ of transformational leadership, we propose that managers will be able to engender a culture of trust, support and positive organisational behavior that will allow for the generation of creativity and innovation, thereby supporting and strengthening continuous change efforts.
Louise Beck is currently doing her Masters in Organisational Psychology at Birbeck, University of London. She has worked in the areas of talent recruitment, organisational development and transformation, as well as a strong background in theatre, drama and performance.
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