I don’t watch that TV show ‘ undercover boss’, largely because I think TV likes to produce its own reality, and I can’t cope with the heavily emotional reactions at the end. But I wonder if every manager should?
I work in a role where its regularly my job to help people face up to reality about themselves, the way they operate, or the way their team operates (and often its an interconnection of all three!). Not everyone likes that, but those that face reality and take action often to on to bigger and better things.
For those that don’t, I can well understand why. It’s tough to hear what you don’t want to hear. It’s tough to have someone tell you things that you maybe know, but don’t want to look too hard at. It’s even harder to face the idea that these may be the very things that are stopping you from achieving what you want (and its not those difficult employees after all!)
I remember my corporate career with fondness, as it taught me lots and gave me lots of opportunities to experiment with change on the way. But I do remember when I began to operate in closer proximity to incredibly senior people and began to notice how many of them had lost touch with the reality of the operation that that they were ultimately responsible for. I was lucky in my final years to work for an incredibly grounded and experienced boss who regularly coached me to work around people who had power but a detached view of our reality. But I still found it scary how wrong they could often be, and how many would broach no argument about that view.
It seems that the further up the tree some executives get, the more they are convinced that they must be right because of that very seniority. But time and again we see organisations failing because the assumptions made on data, numbers, projections turn out to be as removed from the reality of the business as the offices that these assumptions can be made from.
As a change agent I see people stumbling when it comes to telling the boss that their view is flawed. I see bosses talking when they should be asking, and people nod to confirm to the boss that what they say is true. I see plans being built based on a senior assumption, while corridor talk says ‘it can’t work because..’ I see bosses saying what they want from a report instead of asking what they need to hear. I see managers with subordinates rather than advisors. I see workplaces being tidied up to hide problems so that the visiting dignitary doesn’t see them. As a change agent people tell me things because I’m there to change things, and when I raise them the boss has never heard them before.
I often wonder if our hierarchical naming of roles (chief executive with focus on chief, senior this, President, Vice President) brings with it a built in hierarchy, subordination, or fear to speak out? But there is more to it than that.
But if there is some reality in this, it’s no surprise that some executives need to go undercover to find out the real reality of their world. So thats why I wonder if every executive should put on a wig and a pair of fake glasses, grab a broom and go for a walk around their workplace now and again, and just listen and watch the face of reality.
Listening to someone talking through their change initiative the other day I heard them express how difficult it was to get everyone on board with the proposals before they moved to the next stage. This was quite interesting as the normal situation I face is managers not being attentive to whether people are on board at all before they progress.
What we have here was two ends of the same ‘on-board’ spectrum; at one end move too quickly and create discontent through not being listened to and the other end we have move too slowly and people disengage because nothing is happening.
The problem with waiting till everyone ‘gets it’ is that not everyone will do so. It’s one of those facts of life that not everyone will see the vision until they get there.
I remember watching a documentary about the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the building of a new stadium in Cape Town. When plans were released a lot if people objected because from certain parts of the town they thought it would block the view of Table mountain. Table mountain is a big deal in Cape Town, but the mayor pushed ahead with the vision, believing it would be an iconic stadium that benefitted the town. When asked about it after it was built, many people said that they thought it was going to be an eyesore, but now it was there they thought it looked fantastic.
So, not everyone can see it until its there, but this doesn’t mean you ignore the concerns and drive on regardless. Somewhere between the two ends of the on boarding spectrum lies a place with enough consultation to move on, enough questions answered to satisfy people that you are listening, enough discussion to begin filling in the big picture for those who need more detail and enough clues of the potential blockers ahead for the Leader to progress with a plan in place to avoid and remove them.
How do you know where you are on the spectrum though? Here are three simple tests you can apply rather than assume you are ready:
1) listen out for voices changing: it’s too easy to pay attention to the loudest naysayer and those who see problems at every turn. What they are saying is useful in removing roadblocks but as a gauge for the ‘mood in the camp’ they are the wrong barometer. Similarly with the early adopters. Before you start consider and select (in your mind) a number of people who you would consider as moderate in their views, watch their response on day 1, as your benchmark, and see where their mood swings through that early consult and engage phase. If their overall shift is positive versus the day 1 benchmark then you may be close to the middle of the spectrum
2) are the number of questions/concerns/arguements/ dying down? Are people settling back to normal? If so they may be getting back to their comfort zone and it may be time to take the next step, but before you do consider the next question.
3) is there a question that should have been asked that hasn’t? Before you start a change programme you should be predicting all of the questions that will need answered and all the doubts, risks and concerns that will likely be raised. If you move on before an important one is fully understood by your audience then it will come back and bite you with a vengeance later. If so, put it out there as a ‘what if’. You can easily run a Comms session or send out a Comms note (whatever your Comms vehicle is) that says ‘this point has been raised. I think it is a good one bad I would like your views on how it would be solved in the new structure/culture/system proposed change (as appropriate). The responses you get will tell you a lot. If the solutions come back aligned to the new approach then you know people are begging to think that way and its time to take the next step. If you get another uprising of negatives then you know it was just boiling under the surface and you have more work to do.
As you move through the next stage of your change keep applying these tests and you will find, as you get closer to the vision being realised, people will be saying ‘I see what you mean now’
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