A path lit by words


Leave a comment

Taming the Change Management Monster

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. October 20, 2015

“Abominable! Can you believe that? Do I look abominable to you? Why can’t they call me the Adorable Snowman or…or the Agreeable Snowman, for crying out loud? I’m a nice guy.”

The Yeti in the movie, Monsters, Inc.

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts keep turning not to ghosts and goblins, but to the big, hairy monster we know as Change. Lately it seems that all of my new clients have one thing in common: They view change management as huge, complex, and scary. One is so terrified of it that he won’t speak the words, referring to our work as “user adoption.” Another knows that change management is critical, but she frets that her company doesn’t know “how to do change.”

Change is rarely a walk in the park, but stark terror of change still surprises me, for one simple reason: Change is a daily occurrence in our personal lives. Whether it is a new haircut, a move to a strange city, a different job, marriage, or the birth of a child, we deal with change, sometimes happily, sometimes not, knowing it is part of life. So why is change a catastrophe when we encounter it in our organizations and our jobs?

The truth is, it can’t be. Change is how we do business. The days of five-year strategic plans are ancient history, replaced by agility and the need to turn on a dime. Agile organizations survive and thrive through the mantra, “Without change, we die,” yet many others seem to believe that “Change will kill you.” How did we arrive at this disturbing dichotomy?

I’ve concluded, regretfully, that I’m partly to blame—I and the other change management practitioners who have perpetuated the myth that change is abominable. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way we present change to CEOs and change sponsors. First, we make calamitous pronouncements like “seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail”—a spine-chilling statistic whose legitimacy can’t be proven. We pile on jargon like stakeholder assessment, leadership alignment, and mitigation plans when we should be speaking plain English and asking simple questions. And we trot out tools like a “change curve” that is based on the five stages of grief and littered with terms like “fear of the unknown” and “the valley of despair.”

We must sound—to our clients—like prophets of doom. “People hate change,” we tell project teams. “Be prepared for resistance at every turn, from sluggishness to out-and-out sabotage.” As experts in change, it’s our duty to coach them, yet we end up scaring them out of their wits. The same can be true of employee communications. A statement like, “Change means new ways of doing things” is fraught with risk, prerequisite for failure.

Clearly, we need to reconsider the way we think about change. Remember the Abominable Snowman, that supposedly scary monster? It turned out that beneath that frightening exterior, he was a real softy, profoundly misunderstood—just like change. Change is innocuous. It means “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” That’s hardly scary, especially when change in our context offers benefits such as cost savings, improved efficiency, enhanced quality, or an enriched customer experience.

Is change hard work? Most certainly. Can change be abominable? I have to say yes, because ill-conceived, badly executed, and poorly managed change is a monstrous betrayal of everyone it touches. Consider, for example:

  •  Knee-jerk Change—based on hasty decisions made without due diligence or sufficient input from affected parties
  • Cinderella Change—expecting to succeed without seeking out and addressing the reasons for the failure of previous initiatives; requires a Fairy Godmother
  • Do As I Say Change—when leadership teams speak the right words but do not demonstrate their commitment through actions
  • Yo-Yo Change—unpredictable, exemplified by ever-changing priorities, plans, and promises
  • Tightrope Change—when employees are asked to “work without a net” of education and training to perform their altered jobs
  • Dishonest Change—featuring communication that is unclear or glosses over expected negatives like possible job loss

Pitfalls like these can make Change a big, hairy monster, but when you get to know the beast, it can be a real pussycat. Organizations that commit to make change a strategic capability gain a powerful vehicle for learning and growth, for progress and renewal.

 “Terrifying Change! Can you believe that? Do I seem terrifying to you? Why can’t they call me Invigorating Change or Stimulating Change, for crying out loud? I’m not a monster! I’m a good thing!”


Leave a comment

When human bias creeps in…

surveytableRecently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.

It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?

I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative:  prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.

Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.

Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?

I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.

In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.

 


Leave a comment

Leaders: On telling your story

once upon a time

When Blessing-White‘s recent article, The Importance of Narrative, arrived in my inbox, I clicked on it right away. Writers are keenly aware that the business world has a love-hate relationship with people like us—we are welcome in good times, but too often expendable, a luxury some companies choose not to afford. So I was curious to see what a business consultancy had to say about narrative.

The Blessing-White article endorses our central belief in the power of story. It encourages business leaders to share their personal stories with employees “to show who they are in a way that builds trust and expands their credibility, while allowing their direct reports to be inspired and engaged by them.”

Hmm, said my inner cynic. I’ve heard those words before. I’ve lived in a business world filled with stories: Those aimed at the external audience (developed by Marketing, in order to sell) and those meant for a company’s internal audience (Employee Communications, designed to guide and/or change behavior). In that world, stories can be deceitful and manipulative. They aren’t always true.

Then there are leadership stories created by the media. They give us legendary CEOs like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, and notorious CEOs like Bernie Ebbers, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and Ken Lay. Some CEOs fall in between—think Ted Turner and Larry Ellison. Their stories are colorful, frequently inspiring, and too often cautionary.

Blessing-White’s article is refreshing because of its emphasis on truth and its apparent focus on the unsung, not-famous senior leaders who step up every day to empower, engage, and inspire—in short, to lead. It espouses honesty and openness, the willingness to be vulnerable, and a commitment to show respect for one’s audience. And wonder of wonders, it quotes Joseph Campbell, best known for The Power of Myth, who defined the purpose of myths as “a way to make sense of life in the world and establish a shared set of rights and wrongs.” That is a noble challenge for leaders—not just of our corporations, but of our government and organizations of every kind.

Even better, stories can create a vibrant and compelling vision for the future. To quote Blessing-White, “Stories explore the possibility of where we can take ourselves and our organizations with a little imagination and a significant effort. Your way of editing the story of your business and its goals for the future makes you the editor, author and storyteller all at once.”

Kudos to global consultancy Blessing-White. The world will be a better place when more leaders lead by your model.


Leave a comment

Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

On the HBR Blog Network this month, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, referenced The Wolf of Wall Street in his post, “Is Your Boss a Psychopath.” It took me back more than ten years, when I started to write a mystery novel—and realized I knew nothing about how villains think.

Forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin introduced me to sociopaths and psychopaths in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent. Kirwin used murderers, serial killers, and rapists to illustrate the distinction between insanity and evil. At the core is the M’Naghten Rule—the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Simply put, the psychopath knows the difference. S/he just doesn’t care.

Repelled and intrigued, I moved on to Robert Hare, Ph. D., whose forty-year career includes developing the psychopathy checklist and the P-scan to test for it. In Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare points out the chilling fact that most psychopaths never go to prison. The rest—Hare refers to them as “subcriminal” psychopaths while others call them “successful”—are found in our churches, our governments, our schools, and—badum ching—our corporations.

It was 2002 and we’d just lived through the WorldCom and Enron scandals that gave us Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Hare’s book got me thinking about the CEOs, C-suite executives, and other managers I’d met over the years—some who destroyed one corporation and moved on to the next, others who seemed to thrive on using and abusing their employees. Hare showed me why psychopaths so often end up in leadership positions:  Their essential characteristics—such as superficial charm, self-confidence, and calm reaction to rapid change and chaos—make them attractive to corporate boards in troubled companies. More often than not, their lack of empathy, high tolerance for risk, and love of power sink the ship instead of turning it around.

In 2005, after more scandals had emerged, Fast Company published an article (also called “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”) that quoted Hare and mentioned the B-scan, an assessment tool adapted by Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak from the P-scan. “We screen police officers [for psychopathy],” Hare said at the time. “Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?”

Fast forward through ten years of corporate collapses and scandals and we still don’t have a screening tool suitable for an organizational setting. Apparently, it’s not easy to validate such a tool, and you have to believe there are legal issues. Psychological Assessment recently reported progress with the B-Scan 360, which uses ratings of others to measure an individual’s psychopathic features in workplace settings. Unfortunately, it still isn’t ready for prime time.

While we’re waiting, psychologists like Clive R. Boddy and others writing business and management articles and blogs are teaching us to spot these real-life villains, so we can eradicate them from our careers and our lives—and keep them in fiction, where they belong.