The election of 2016 was billed as a “change election.” It is clear now that a large portion of the electorate had reached such a level of frustration and feeling of disconnect with the status quo that they were willing to vote for change – any change. Even though they came from different sides of the political spectrum, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the only presidential candidates to recognize and tap into this powerful undercurrent of the desire for change.
Unfortunately for Sanders, his message of change was blunted by the Democratic National Committee that had effectively rigged the party nomination in favor of an establishment status quo candidate. On the other hand, Trump benefited from the fact that, while the Republican National Committee favored establishment candidates, a gaggle of 15 other candidates diffused the establishment support. This allowed disaffected Republican voters to coalesce around Trump’s message of change. Even though Trump never received a majority of Republican primary votes, the concentration of voters driven by the desire for change pushed him to the nomination.
The same phenomenon (plus a little help from Russia) also impacted the general election. Even though Trump and his message of change failed to garner a majority of the popular vote, he was able to cobble together enough disaffected voters to flip a number of traditionally establishment Democratic states in order to win the majority of Electoral College votes (the votes that really count) and win the presidency. Much to the chagrin of the bulwarks of the government establishment status quo – the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties and the national media.
Learning the Lessons of Change Management
As president, Trump is now challenged to live up to his promise to be a change agent. He is quickly learning the lesson that any person in a position of leadership who seeks to bring about change must understand: Change is not something that is simply announced, it has to be created.
Change has two natural enemies: Those who resist change and those are frustrated by the status quo, but fear what change will bring. Those who are comfortable with the way things are and view change as a threat to be resisted. For them, change is the answer to a question they never asked. Ironically, those who most vociferously call for real change can become fearful of change when the answer to what change means is not clearly answered. As a result, change, no matter how beneficial it may ultimately be, is always difficult to implement and accept. And change becomes downright messy and chaotic when what is to replace the status quo is muddled or nonexistent.
Real change is about being positive, not negative …
For a leader to be a successful change agent, it is critical for them to shift the focus off the desire for change itself and focus on the benefits that will be derived from change. In other words, for followers to accept change, the debate should not center on what they are losing, but on what they can gain from the change. If that does not happen, change will be stillborn.
A good example of this change dynamic at work is the current debate over Obamacare. From its inception, the majority of Americans have had a negative opinion of the program. The Republicans seized on the unpopularity of Obamacare to promise that if given the power to act, they would “repeal and replace” it. Likewise, during the campaign Trump railed against Obamacare and promised that his first act as president (right after tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement) would be to repeal and replace Obamacare.
But now with the Republicans in full control of the government, the effort to deliver on the promise of repealing and replacing Obamacare has become, at best, messy and chaotic. Even the Republicans are fighting among themselves as to how to implement this change. There is no clear, coordinated plan being offered by Trump or the Republicans; despite the fact that they have had years to develop one.
As a result of this befuddling Republican approach to change, even those who disapprove of Obamacare have begun to have second thoughts. For the first time in years, public opinion polls have shifted and more people approve of Obamacare, than oppose it.
Why is it that even those who were demanding change (and voted for it) are now uneasy with change? The problem is – and this is a great lesson for any leader to learn – that by simply announcing the intent to repeal Obamacare and not coupling it with a clear plan for going forward, Trump and the Republican leaders have allowed people to focus on what they will be losing (as bad as it may be) rather than on what they will gain by a new approach to healthcare.
What Trump and the Republican leaders are missing in their effort to implement the promised change (not only for Obamacare, but other issues as well) is the understanding that while people may be frustrated with the status quo and claim to want change, they are even more fearful of an uncertain future. As a result, there is nothing but confusion, frustration and fear of what the change will bring.
Again, the key to effective change management is for the leader to focus on where they are going, rather than where they have been. No matter how much people may protest against the status quo, unless they clearly understand the benefits of the proposed change, they will resist the change.
For example, Trump and the Republican leaders could have said something like, “We are going to repeal Obama care and replace it with an expanded Medicare system that would be available and cover all Americans.” By offering an alternative to the status quo, rather than simply attacking it, leaders can marshal support needed to make change positive.
Living with change …
There is a good lesson here for anyone who seeks to implement change in an organization. No matter how passionate people may be about seeking change and especially for those who do not recognize the need for change, the best approach for gaining acceptance of change is to debate the future, not the past. It is the duty of the leader to paint that future and explain the benefits to those who will live it. Only that way will real change come about.