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.

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.

When Feedback goes Terribly Wrong

So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.

I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.

I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.

The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.

  1. Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
  2. Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
  3. Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
  4. Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
  5. The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.

There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.

Building Rapport with Employees

I recently read an article focused on building relationships between business faculty and students. In this article, Dr. Maryellen Weimer discusses research on the value of building rapport that indicates that open communication and a feeling of “alikeness” increases motivation, increases quality of work, establishes greater trust and leads to overall greater student (and faculty) satisfaction.

rapport_symbolAs I read this I couldn’t help but think that the context is very similar to those of us in management or leadership roles and our relationship with our employees. Like faculty, there is often a distance that is established within the system based on the need for the manager to be objective and, at some degree, evaluate the performance of the employee. We decide on job assignments, roles and responsibilities, and even compensation, so the distance between the leader and the follower can be great. For some, it is even formalized by the belief that, “If I’m the boss, I have to be distant,” which makes establishing rapport nearly impossible.

The researchers cited in this article found that of all the elements of rapport-building that were observed, there were five that were repeated throughout the study. While the research focused only on the educational context of business faculty and student, I believe these five elements can easily be replicated in the work place. (Perhaps I should do a study?). Take a look at the following and see what you think:

1. Respect:  Managers and employees who show respect for each other, the work they are doing, and the organization for which they are doing it would be much more likely to establish a mutually beneficial relationship.

2. Approachability: Employees have to feel comfortable coming to you and you have to be willing to speak to them.  Your employees need to feel they can approach you. It is impossible to feel comfortable with a boss if he or she has no time for you or your concerns. And by the way, formal and highly structured methods of connecting (“Call my assistant and we’ll work you in next week”) detract from the notion of approachability.

3. Trust and Integrity: Managers must be honest with their employees and have a visible connection between what they say and what they do. One of the easiest ways to undermine true rapport is to create an environment where employees can’t trust their boss. If you promise it, deliver it. If you can’t deliver it, don’t promise it.

4. Caring: Leaders have to care about their followers, and their followers have to know this. This means responding to and working with your employees as individuals. You don’t have to be their mother, but you need to care about their experience while at work. As I’ve said before, there’s no such thing as work/life balance…it’s all life. This means that the time they spend with you needs to be valued.

5. Positive Attitude: Managers need to be optimistic about the possibilities of their employees and their work. They should have a sense of humor. Take what you do very seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Your employees will respect the fact that you have context and will appreciate the approachability that comes with optimism.

Rapport is established by the actions of the leader. You can’t send an email announcing that you will now have rapport. But you can look at these five keys to rapport building and decide what you can do to start establishing better and more productive relationships with your employees. While these actions are not difficult, they require commitment. In the end, building rapport will not only enhance the satisfaction of your employees, but it will make a more satisfying workplace for you as well.