Leading Change? Can Expectancy Theory Help You?

May 16, 2018 - School Education

The dictionary defines ‘Change’ as, ‘An act or process through which something becomes different.’ Just nine words cover the subject that is currently worrying everybody who is a manager or leader in commerce and industry.

The words ‘manager’ and leader’ imply an organisation, with people working in it and dependent upon it. A critical question is “How can our organisation survive when the past is no longer a reliable guide and we don’t know what the future will be? In what way must we change and for what purpose?”

The chances of success will be increased if those who work in the organisation are supportive and constructive. This article is concerned about the motivation for these people. They expect the organisation to meet some of their basic needs – physical and psychological. What such needs are has frequently been defined and re-defined by academics from Maslow (1943) onwards. This paper “Facing into organisational change” suggests three reasons why a leader may find ‘people needs’ hard to meet.

One of these is ‘inability to define the desired result’. It seems obvious enough, but commonly leaders don’t have it clear enough in their own minds or can’t communicate it to those who have not shared their thinking. Martin Luther King got it right when he said “I have a dream” and went on to explain it. A less successful attempt is found in the Bible, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain note, who will prepare himself for the battle?”

“Lack of a detailed plan on how to achieve a defined vision.” That is the next danger. Perhaps the dream seems OK but there is no clarity about how it will be made real. Here the work of another academic is relevant. Victor Vroom called his idea “Expectancy Theory” and it said that it was pointless to offer people a reward if they did not believe you could provide it. To motivate a follower, that follower must believe that the leader has both the will and the power to provide satisfaction. It is not enough to trust the goodwill of the leader if you are thinking, “He will never have the chance to make good on his promise. Somebody higher up will prevent him.”

The third difficulty is the human dislike of change. Provided the present situation is not intolerable people are likely to think, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” It is often possible to adapt to a bad situation and think, “It could be worse.” It takes something very dramatic to overcome this feeling. Something like the Irish famine which sparked massive immigration to the USA.

So, the task of a leader looks almost impossible. Nobody knows quite which way change is going, and when the leader is in doubt, how can conviction and confidence be created? Here are a few ideas.

1. Make use of scenario planning, in which one imagines one possible future and considers the likely impact it will have. A Business Simulation (or Business Game) is one way of doing this, because games have to have rules and devising a coherent game structure is one way to make the scenario credible.

2. Be open and honest when making statements about the future, even when the only truth is. “I don’t know yet”. Honesty is usually recognised and earns respect, while fabrications arouse suspicion. Admission of doubt can be followed by disclosure of the main possibilities being considered. It shows that the leader is doing something positive.

3. Seek comments and take all of them seriously. Do not dismiss even a seemingly ridiculous one. For a follower, having the leader take on board what one has suggested is a psychological reward.

4. Paint a picture. This must be carefully done, like the speech of Henry V before Agincourt.

“He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ”Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.

Those words show the bad and the good honestly. A soldier may very well get killed (the change policy fails) but if he survives (even wounded) there are good times coming.

In these days of electronic and remote communication there is still a role for a leader who is highly visible and enthusiastic – perhaps even a bit theatrical.