It often amazes me how things that happen at work can feel very much the same as home life, especially when they are going wrong. I sat with a colleague the other day and over a coffee she told me about some problems she had gone through with someone whom she worked with. I had a ‘this is just like..’ feeling.
My colleague told me that over a period of time she and this staffer had disagreed about the way things needed to be done for their client. As an Ad agency keeping client happy with the output is important, but sticking to within the client budget even more so.
She felt that her colleague was going off in a direction that the client business couldn’t afford and wasn’t really in the original remit. She didn’t think the ideas were bad per se just not what had been agreed. As she was the contact for the client it was up to her to deliver and she was getting pressure as a result.
Each conversation they had became tougher and she noticed that they were changing in a drastic way. Their conversations became more formal and her colleagues tone was more clipped. It began to sound as if everything her colleague said had been rehearsed and even as if someone else had told her what she should be saying.
Eventually she suggested that they sit down and make it clear to each other how they needed to work and what they would each do on the contract. Her colleague stormed out. She phoned her and tried to reconcile but got nowhere. Two days later her colleague left to start a new role and week later approached the client to come with her.
Does some of that sound familiar? Ever been through a relationship breakup? Now does it sound familiar?
When people break up with work they tend to act the same way that they do in a break-up at home.
To justify the eventual leaving, staff will begin to make work appear ‘bad’. Everything that happens can get blown up out of all proportion, everything their manager does or colleagues do will be wrong. If they are being told by friends that they ‘need to leave’ then it can start to sound like they are being coached or someone else is talking. Situations appear to be more formal, and often result in very obvious annoyance or upset. When they finally leave people will say ‘she hated it here no wonder she went’.
When you witness a colleague behaving badly towards work on an increasing basis, what you may be seeing is the result of the decision already made. They know that they want to leave, but they haven’t finalised the decision, so the behaviour is fuel to justify the ending.
If you are a manager of someone who is acting this way its a time for the C’s. Firstly its a time to be cautious. Handle it wrongly and you become the problem. And if you become the problem then you can also be the reason cited for their leaving and you don’t want that. So don’t burst out with ‘whats wrong with you!’
So Its the time for personal calm and its the time for checking (anything else going on in their life? Someone will know, anything specific happened? Someone will know that too).
You cant afford to leave it going on if it is affecting your workplace and your other staff and some people can drag the scenario out for a long time. So when you’ve watched a while to be sure something is really wrong, checked what you need to check, then its the time for a chat. In your most supportive way, with no accusations and no allegations, you check in with them to see whats going on and whether something is wrong and whether there is something that you can help with as their manager.
If they make it clear that they don’t like it at work and hate the job/people/work/company (take your pick) then a good manager will help that person to ‘get off the bus’. But don’t suggest that they leave (you go back to being the problem again), suggest that you can ‘find someone who may be able to help them get clear on what they do want to do and see where that takes them, but in the meantime if they have a problem could they just air it with you?’.
So cautious, calm, check and a chat.
Wouldn’t every break up be easy if thats the way it went?
Can you imagine a change where a project team has been put in place to drive process and culture, the staff are showing an interest in what the change is about and what it will bring, but the managers aren’t interstellar at best and totally against it at worst? It’s not that hard to imagine because you can see it all the time in large organisations and many of you will have lived through it.
In most culture change I rely on the managers as being the main drivers of change, the communicators of the changes and the removers of obstacles that fall in the way. After all, they have the authority to make changes and are there on the ground, day by day to coach and support their staff. The main task for the change agent is the alignment of the managers to what the change is, what that means and what is required of everyone. If they are not aligned they pull different ways and change crumbles. But if the only thing that they are aligned to is that they don’t want change, what can you do?
For those in the project team, this can be a major challenge. What do you do when every conversation is pushed back, no manager gives your Comms the support it needs and every decision is litigated to death in the hope that you go away?
If the manager isn’t engaging their staff in the Comms then a vital part of culture change is being missed. Project teams often resort to communicating direct with staff, but all that ensures is that the ‘are they getting the information?’ box can be ticked. The key to comms is two way and the discussion to get understanding of what and why. This dialogue deals with fears and concerns too so if its missing the project can develop unnecessary resistance and stress. Reluctant Managers can then say ‘look how you are stressing out my people, we need to kill this project’. So you need those opportunities for dialogue.
Stepping in Some project teams respond by taking over the managers role more and more. As the manager ignores them they in turn begin to ignore the manager and go direct to the staff that are showing an interest and working with them. In the short term this may appear to work, but in the long term there is a risk because the project team can’t take over all aspects of the managers role in full and forever. In addition the manager can then make the case that they are being bypassed and the mood of the staff can swing against the project.
The other route is to spend more time with the manager trying to sway them. Of course the project team will believe strongly in the project (how could they not) and this often ends up as a series of heated arguments where two ‘world views’ clash. This can damage the project as any moral high ground is lost. The manager will be dealing with their own fears and concerns and they too need help to align and engage and this is often forgotten (they are a manager what do they have to worry about?). Managers risk a lot in change as the basis for their positional power is often taken away, knowledge that keeps them in the expert position is also rendered useless when process is totally overhauled. So the conversation of project roll out ‘right or wrong’ isn’t what they need either.
Let them fail
One approach can be to let the manager fail by leaving them to it. Staff will shout out and demand more from their manager and someone senior will step in and make the manager do their job. Well that’s the theory, but staff tend to stoically accept theirmanagers deficiency and the ‘there goes another failed initiative’ syndrome sets in. And of course the manager will not fail, the project will.
The natural tendency when you see a gap is to fill a gap. For project teams, when that gap is a manager then frustration that the manager ‘isn’t doing their job’ can mean that steps are taken for the right reason, with the wrong outcomes. Whilst leaving the manager to it, doesn’t work, stepping in as above doesn’t either.
Instead adjust your approach to get alongside the manager as much as you can. Offer to attend some of their team meetings or host discussion sessions with their teams as a partner. Their weakness in the Comms area may be lack comfort as opposed to a deliberate attempt to trip up the project. Spend time with them and listen out for their personal concerns and worries and where you can help them (and listening is often enough). Do what you can to make them look good in front of their staff. Moderate your processes if accepting their suggestions to do so moves things along at little cost to you. Don’t fight over right or wrong, don’t get stuck in a battle over the perfect roll out that took you months to design. Keep in mind that the project can live and die on how you handle the receiving managers.
So take a lesson from trees and bend with the wind rather than battle it.
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’
In the modern world we don’t have a lot of time for change to settle in or bed down before the next change comes along. The freeze, change, re-freeze model, for example, just doesn’t fit the current climate, and not would you expect it to as it was defined in 1947 for different times and a different world.
But if there is no time to re-freeze then there is a risk that the change you are embarking on wont take. Indeed with many change programmes around the world failing to deliver their stated investment case, one part of that failure is probably down to the lack of stabilization that rapid change can bring.
Freeze / stabilization not only embeds change in the physical systems of your organisation but most importantly embeds in the belief system I.e becomes part of your culture. Belief in change takes time and a lot of people these days suspend their belief for as long as they can because they have seen so many changes come to nothing it makes sense to not fully invest until they are sure.
In times of rapid change, managers can move on from the change too quickly, declare that it’s finished before the workforce has bought in, with the result that what the workforce sees is lack of commitment to the change I.e they were right to withhold belief.
Managers then move on to another change, fanfare a brave new world, employees say ‘here we go again, this will be just like the last one’ and the cycle of incomplete, un-stabilized change initiatives keeps on going. Think about it; is the reason younger employees are often more up for change than their older colleagues a function of age but a function of living through more of these cycles?
So,we don’t have time to stabilize and we need to keep change moving, yet we can’t afford to have change that fails to deliver, what do we do?
I believe that leaders need to treat fast paced change as an evolution of the last and build on what has gone before.
Too much change still throws at what went before because managers think that their change has to be seen to be transformational. Transformational change was the big buzzword twenty years ago, when the organisation you were looking at hadn’t moved in years and a lot of old systems really did need to be thrown out. But it has left a legacy of people thinking that’s what you do in change; throw everything out. Indeed the kind of things that created transformational change twenty years ago are often commonplace now where IT platforms shift dramatically, technology gives us more and more data in more readily accessible ways for example. Twenty years ago a cloud was something you got rain from!
The benefits of building on the last change, when you have a shorter change cycle, is that the building process increases belief in the last change at a time when the workforce are just about ready to decide whether to believe in it or not (managers always reach their belief point quicker because they have longer to invest in the change before it is launched on the workforce).
Instead of saying ‘here is a whole new thing’, try saying ‘we’ve been embedding project alpha for nine months and now we’d like to apply the alpha model to a new situation and widen our focus’. Can the principles of your last change be used to float the next change? Can the messages you put out before be morphed and expanded? Can the training in alpha be refreshed to launch beta whilst also embedding alpha in the culture of your organisation?
Rome wasnt built in a day, nor was it built by tearing it down every year. It was built on the foundations of the last build.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all you needed to do to bring about culture change, was to get everyone in a room and we all agree that something has to change, then everyone leaves and just gets on with it.
Tried that, doesn’t work.
OK, then how about getting everyone involved in writing the company values, so that they adopt them because they created them?
Tried that, won’t work
Maybe we should change everyone’s job description to match the intention of the culture we need?
Tried that, won’t work.
How about we get rid of people that don’t fit in, leaving behind only those that have the attitude we need?
Tried that won’t work.
Lets announce the values that management have defined and have an event to celebrate them with a month of activity?
Tried that, won’t work.
We redefine the process that everyone uses, change any associated software and that will ultimately change people’s attitudes?
Tried that, won’t work.
We need to define clear competencies and map everyone against that perfect model!
Forced to try that, knew it wouldn’t work.
It must be all about reward, so we connect people’s pay and bonuses to the behaviours that we need?
Tried that, won’t work.
Right, lets give everyone a personal objective associated with the values so they are working to make them real?
Tried that, won’t work
How about we send all the leaders to a two day training programme and give them the latest in leadership theory so they implement it and that will change the attitudes of those around them.
Tried that, won’t work.
So if none of those work, then how do you bring about culture change?
The answer is that none of these work on their own. The silver bullet approach just does not deliver a change of culture. True culture change is only likely if most of these are implemented in a cohesive programme across 18months to two years.
To change culture you need to engage everyone in why it needs to change. You need to involve them in what the improved culture will look like and what it will take to get there. Then you need to make it easy to be part of that culture, so you remove your processes that enforce the old style, change associated software, rewrite job descriptions, update your reward system so that you stop rewarding old behaviours and reward the new. You need to get everyone involved somehow, so you endeavor to give people an objective that is part of changing the culture or involve them in planned activity that involves them in doing things the new way. You will need to help some people get off the bus if they don’t want to be on it any more, as you can’t afford to have people staying to force the culture back the way it was. And your leaders do need to change their style to align it to the new approach. You may not achieve this by sending them to hear the latest theory though as the theory has to be totally aligned to your needs (knowing more theory wont make them better leaders). You probably need to get more specific and personal about their needs.
The key is, If your intent is to change culture then you need to match it with the intensity of your activity.
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