Organizational Change is Personal

And yes...feelings matter

I had coffee with a friend this week who has been going through a large amount of organizational change at his work place. As a result of the reorganization, he not only has less responsibility but all of his direct reports were moved to a newly formed department. He is still doing what he was doing, but the organization is now a matrix. The people that were there before are still there, but doing different things with different teams and different management structures.

There are a lot of things that we know about the organizational change process and many of these are pretty predictable. So much so that my friend commented during one of my observations that on the one hand it is reassuring to know that what his company is going through follows a path that is not as unique as it feels. On the other hand, the fact that it is predictable does nothing to make it less painful.

Employee concerned about futureI thought about this and realized that, saying the impact of organizational change is a known factor and predictable only tells the story at the macro level. When we are talking about change at a conceptual level, scholars of organizational psychology and behavior can get pretty darn close about what is likely to happen and when it is likely to happen depending on the actions taken. But as soon as you take the impact of change to the individual level, we cannot predict that at all.

As a leader, this is crucially important for you to remember. Regardless of how resilient and flexible you are, and how strong the case for change is, you are likely to have no idea how change FEELS to your individual employees. You aren’t at the dinner table when the family is discussing their concerns and anxieties. You are unaware that college decisions are being made for a teenager in one of your employee’s homes and now the concern about financial impacts is keeping your employee awake at night. And that team you have developed over the years and take such pride in? They also take pride in not only their output but in their relationships. Concern over what happens to these relationships after an organizational change takes place is highly valid, very personal and overwhelmingly intense.

If you think this is all “soft stuff,” think again. Yes it is about feelings. But feelings directly influence commitment and commitment directly influences behavior. An important way to have a positive impact in this situation is to be as honest, transparent and respectful as you can. While organizational change often creates winners and losers, both are human. And the losers deserve as much respect and attention as the winners. Maybe even more.


We can’t talk about this

Dealing with undiscussable topics

I’ve written often in this blog about the value and process of giving and receiving feedback. It is a skill that I’m convinced is woefully underused yet is crucial for leaders to master as they endeavor to create high-performing teams. While some managers do a great job of at least creating the opportunity for feedback, they can talk and listen and talk and listen and still have a sense that there are issues out there that are simply not coming into the conversation. This is because, in most organizations and on most teams, there are “Undiscussables.”

We have lots of terms for undiscussables, one of the most common being “the 800 pound gorilla” or “the elephant in the room.” I’m not sure why we’ve decided to use jungle metaphors for this phenomenon but the fact remains that an undiscussable is not acknowledged yet is known by everybody…except perhaps the person(s) who is the source of the topic to begin with.

Dealing with undiscussables is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, simply allowing an important issue to remain untouched can create discomfort and a toxic environment. On the other hand, the issue is undiscussable for a reason. Either people don’t feel safe talking about it, there are social sanctions to bringing it up (the team punishes the speaker for making them uncomfortable), or there is simply not a clear way to get the topic on the table.

If you think there are important issues that your team actively ignores, you should consider finding a way to address them. But be cautious. Calling out the 800-pound gorilla may only serve to tick off the 800-pound gorilla! There is nothing constructive about the well-meaning manager who calls together a dysfunctional team and has them “put it all out on the table” without a plan on what to do with “it” once “it” is on the table.  Undiscussables are usually highly emotionally charged and have little to do with logic. It’s a genie that’s difficult to get back into the bottle.

(Apparently this is “Metaphor Monday”!)

Discussing an undiscussable issue takes finesse and a true respect for those holding the beliefs as well as those about which the beliefs are held. These issues aren’t created overnight and they can’t be resolved overnight either. So what do you do?

First, start asking high-quality, data-seeking questions. If you are unable to do this without being defensive, have somebody else like an HR professional or external consultant do it for you. The purpose of the questions is not to fix anything but rather to understand what makes up the issue that cannot be discussed. You want to find out exactly what the belief is and why it is held. Look for examples of behaviors on your team or in your organization that may reinforce the belief, even if the actual situation is not what it is seen to be. Don’t defend anything…simply listen

Second, help people understand that they are only seeing the behaviors of others rather than the intent. There are tools with which to do this, but the point is simple. I only know what you do but I have no idea of why you do it. Even if you tell me why you do the things you do, I can never know for sure that what you say is true or that you even know why you do what you do. But I can SEE what’s happening and that is something we can talk about.

Third, give people time. Be patient. Making your team aware that you know of the undiscussable and that you are willing to address it may be the only step on which you can succeed initially. That’s fine. Any change to the reinforcing loop that is causing the problem will ultimately change the problem. Don’t be judgmental about what is reasonable and what isn’t…if people have a topic they feel they can’t discuss it has nothing to do with whether you could discuss it or not. Those are THEIR feelings.

Finally, create safety. Monitor your own responses and remember that undiscussables are cloaked in fear. If somebody starts to be honest, encourage it and avoid any kind of defense or attack. Let people know that you will do whatever is necessary to ensure that it’s ok to discuss important issues. If you encourage the process step by step you may find that the topics that are getting in the way can be addressed once they are out in the open. If you don’t know how to address them, ask for help…from the team, from a colleague or from a trusted mentor. However you choose to address it, there will be a lot more air in the room for people to breath if you get rid of all those large animals!

Are You Walking the Talk?

As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing people. It is the only thing.” Leading through example happens whether you decide to do it or not. You are doing it by default. You are, in essence, already “walking the talk.” The question is really, “What talk are you walking?”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking-the-talk is about congruence. Whether it is your company, your employees, or your peers that have diverse perspectives, these perspectives come into play when your behaviors are judged according to your words. Determining if we are modeling the behavior we espouse is further challenged by the fact that we are not typically adequate judges of the messages our actions communicate. The only way to truly answer the question about your own tendency to follow your words with appropriate actions is to get input from others and spend time in self-reflection. A future article will focus on the soliciting and receiving of feedback, but for now, we’re going to look at the challenge of reflection.

There are five key questions that you should ask yourself, and ask your followers, that will bring you much closer to realizing how effectively you are delivering on your words:

1. Am I clear?     Many times we confuse our employees about our expectations because we ourselves are not clear on what we mean. For example, “I expect us to focus on collaboration” could mean that you expect team members to work more openly with each other, with other teams, with other companies or in all three situations. Depending on background and culture of the follower, it could also mean that the objective is to work without a manager. Or it could be understood to have an underlying message that individual performance will no longer be rewarded. A team holding a variety of these interpretations could be trying to behave in very different ways.

 2. Do I mean what I say?     Have you fallen into the habit of explaining to your followers what you believe your expectations should be rather than what they really are? As leaders in challenging times, we sometimes feel obligated to tell our employees that things will get better soon. The problem is, often we don’t know that…or perhaps don’t believe it. It is much better to be honest and brief than to be dishonest for the sake of morale. Our employees are smart people. They know when we don’t mean what we say.

3. Do I hold myself to a higher standard?      Strong leaders are not only willing to behave as they expect others to behave, but they are willing to hold themselves to even higher standards than they expect of others. By establishing higher standards for yourselves than for your followers, you will find that you provide an authentic inspiration that goes well beyond simply stating the desired behavior.

4. Do I understand how I am perceived?    As a popular saying goes, “It is impossible to see your own picture when you are standing in the frame.” For leaders to ensure consistency between words and actions, they must receive feedback on how they are seen by others. If you do not have a formal mechanism for getting this feedback, start soliciting it now. Be specific with your questions. Instead of “How am I being perceived,” ask “How did people feel about that statement,” or “What do you think I could do to be even more consistent?”

5. Do I truly care?      The purpose of “walking-the-talk” is to reinforce positive behavior and to teach your followers how to be more successful. If you reflect on your own feelings about your followers, you will find that the only to care if you are consistent is to care about the success of your employees. If you are honest about your feelings on this, and you find that you really do not care as much as you want them to think you do, it’s time to step back and find your passion again.

Own Your Inspiration

Nobody else can

Lately, a few special friends and acquaintances have been asking me about the slowdown in my blog and other writing projects. By slowdown I mean SLOW down.  It’s not that I have been any less interested nor that writing satisfies me any less. It’s just that in the last few months, I haven’t been motivated to create anything new or particularly interesting as I’ve been caught up in one thing or another.

Along this same time period I have allowed myself to become so busy with tasks that I have quite a stack of reading collecting. These include magazines of all types, articles, blog posts, you name it. If it is something that I want to sit down and mull for a while it has gone on the stack. Until a couple of weeks ago where I finally had some “spare” time and let myself take an article off of the top of the stack.

Amazingly, as soon as I started reading again, I started writing again. It helps to have a few special friends that also continue to push a little, but without something to spark the ideas, there is nothing to write. Only then did I come to the realization:

 If I’m not reading, I’m not writing. Or as a very insightful friend reminded me, if there is not input, there will be no output.

As a leader, you can get caught up in the tasks that have to be accomplished and become entirely focused on the day-to-day grind of getting work done. As issues arise, you can deal with them as you always have and get the same results that you’ve always gotten. But if all of the opportunities and issues were as simple as that, nobody would need your brain. And organizations are desperate for brains.

There are many ways to rekindle your own inspiration.  Roger von Oech, the author of the classic “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” points out that “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” To do this, you have to allow yourself some time to think. Leader after leader with whom I’ve worked has said that they would be much happier and much more effective if they just had time to consider options and create new ideas. Important point: Your time is your time. If you have zero time to think and reflect, it is because you haven’t chosen some of that time that you own and devoted it to the pursuit of thinking.

It might also be that you don’t need to free up additional time, but rather repurpose what you are already doing. For example, avoid following up on email or being on a phone call at the gym. It’s pretty silly looking anyway, but if you’re on the treadmill, or taking a walk, or driving to and fro, it’s possible to unplug from everything and simply mull over a problem or opportunity.

What works for me is to be intentional. We often let thinking time be the time we have left when everything else is completed. But how much more effective could you be with “everything else” if you had some time to think? It is possible to make thinking the first priority rather than the last. I have moved reading, for example, to the very first thing I do now when I get up in the morning. No email, no perusing social media, no television. I take the next thing from the stack of what I want to read and go for it.

What sorts of things do you do to prioritize thinking? What works for you?

The Leadership Paradox of Vulnerability

Great leaders are strong. Great leaders are confident. Great leaders have a vision and know how to get there. Great leaders are stable and consistent.

Oh, and Great leaders are human. Great leaders have doubts. Great leaders take risks. Great leaders have emotion. In short, Great leaders are vulnerable.

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and the author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” In this book she simplifies vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As she puts it, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.”

How is it even possible that a leader can be a Great leader without showing up and being seen? Many try to do this through posturing and internalizing any doubts or concerns. They believe that, by hiding their vulnerability they avoid the risk of letting their followers know they don’t have all the answers. These leaders are generally horrified that, if those who depend on them see them as being less than 100% certain, they will begin to doubt their leader.

Here’s the thing. Your followers know you aren’t perfect and that you don’t have all of the answers. In fact, they think you’re full of it when you try to act like you do. To us, vulnerability feels like weakness, but to our followers, vulnerability represents courage and guts. To us, perfectionism feels like a promise to deliver all things at all times and avoid any possible embarrassment of mistakes or misjudgments. To our followers, perfectionism seems like arrogance and a mask that keeps us from connecting.

I’m not asking you this week to go into your work or leadership context and break down in a huddled quivering mass. I’m simply asking you to be honest with your people. Let them know that you understand their concerns because they are also yours. And let them know that together, you will help lead them through it. That, in my humble opinion, is the sign of a Great leader.

One Phrase Worth Rethinking

I recently had a discussion with a young lady that was exasperated at an ongoing conflict she was having with a co-worker. The conflict started on a separate project several months ago and now they were working on something new together and all he could do was put her down and make her feel stupid and insignificant. Since in this case they had no choice but to work together, she was exhausted and highly stressed at the idea of having to go through this with him again. I asked her if she had spoken to him directly about her concerns in light of this new project. Her response was a very common phrase:

“I shouldn’t have to.”

Her reasoning was that they had spoken before and that she had made herself crystal clear yet already he was starting to give her “those looks” again that indicated how useless he thought she was. Since they had talked about this before, she felt he ought to know how that these looks and the tone of voice he used were condescending and insulting. She was emotionally exhausted having to be on his team again.

You can see there is a lot for our young lady to get her head around about her own accountability, but look at that last sentence again. “He ought to know how to act in this situation.”

I have seen many people (myself included) brought to a complete halt by the “I shouldn’t have to” mentality an interpersonal conflict situation. “I shouldn’t have to” assumes (a) “rightness” on the side of the person saying it and (b) some kind of justice that exists between us and all of those with whom we have relationships. In fact, when it comes to conflict situations, “I shouldn’t have to apologize” is one of the most common walls erected to resolution. It means, “I am not to blame, she is, therefore it is she who needs to apologize.”

The problem is that “I shouldn’t have to” is often entirely irrelevant. The real issue is whether the potential outcome of DOING it would outweigh the protection of pride involved in NOT DOING it. And that’s what “I shouldn’t have to” is often about. It is my own ego interpreting the situation as if taking whatever action this is will put me in a subordinate position. And that position becomes more important than the actual resolution of the issue.

Of course there are times where the situation has become extreme enough that you have to put your foot down and say enough is enough. This is an example of ownership of your role in the situation and taking a stand. Unfortunately, “I shouldn’t have to” is a phrase of inaction…it sometimes represents why we are not going to do something in the specific situation that might, in reality, make a difference.

Before deciding that I just don’t understand the jerks you work with (and I don’t…but they aren’t that different from jerks others work with…trust me), ask yourself a couple of questions before sticking to your “shouldn’t have to” plea.

  1. What are the consequences of action versus inaction? Is it possible that doing what you “shouldn’t have to do” might break the stalemate?
  2. Is it possible that you are now trying to make a point rather than trying to solve the problem?
  3. Is it possible that the other party doesn’t realize that you are waiting for them to do something? How would they know?
  4. Is it possible that your stand is based on a lack of confidence rather than real justification?

And by the way, don’t let me sound too righteous here as this is a trap I fall into as frequently as anybody. I often have to ask myself who I’m helping and whether or not it is really worth it. The big question for me is often, “Is this really a principle I’m standing on or is it pettier than that?” If it’s pettier, it might be worth doing it, even if you shouldn’t have to.