Losing Our Religion

by Miki Reilly-Howe

Inside corporations, transformation can feel like a loss. It doesn’t have to.

In the thousands of interviews I’ve conducted at large corporations in the midst of transformation efforts, one theme rises to the top. Often, it’s stated exactly the same—across divisions, regions and functions. I’ve heard it at tech companies, financial firms, healthcare corporations, and manufacturers.

“We’re going to lose our soul.”

This is usually the answer I’m given to a question like, “What concerns you about the current situation?” or “What is your biggest fear as the company changes?”

Using a metaphor like ‘soul’ is an important tell. The soul is something sacred and invisible. It’s the spiritual shadow to our physical being. It’s not something that shows up on a poster in the elevator or as a plaque in the lobby. It’s felt deeply, but not articulated.

What do employees mean when they make this statement? When pressed, they usually equate it to losing “who we are.” They feel that the transformation will somehow strip the company of its identity or wash away history. And that feeling is understandable when you consider what’s left out of communication during a big strategic shift: all of it focuses on what’s changing, not what’s going to remain the same. This results in unnecessary anxiety which slows transformation efforts.

To avoid this, leaders should go out of their way to overtly state what will not change during the transformation—values, recognition of the organization’s history, a relentless commitment to customers. Then, find a way to celebrate both. Recognize people in the organization who are adapting well to the transformation while holding on to what’s enduringly important. Words are important, but actions speak volumes.

 

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