What can toilets tell us about change?
I know that’s an unusual title for a blog on change but I was spurred to the thoughts that follow by a recent trip that took me through a few airports on the way to a week of sunshine in the pacific (and yes Auckland Domestic you are not the best ‘welcome to New Zealand’ any tourist would have when they travel to the regions).
It was after one such toilet stop that I remarked to my partner that the gents was once again pretty average in cleanliness, facilities and appearance. My partner replied that the ladies was nice, with special scented ‘sticks’ and natural light as well as attractive wallpaper. For not the first time I commented that this seems to be the same story the world over (Disneyworld excepted), where the gents are often smelly, dingy and poorly equipped. We then had a conversation about whether it’s because women looked after nice facilities and men have messy habits so it’s not worth it (and I so love conversations with gender generalities sprinkled through them).
So what’s this to do with change? Well it got me thinking about the expectations we set and the standards we have in our organisations. It’s not new thinking to say that people act in line with our expectations of them. From the likes of Rosenthal onwards there has been research around performance being driven by not only perception but expectation. But I was reminded about how unconscious and unintended these messages can be. I don’t know whether my partner is correct that many places don’t put efforts into the gents because of a perception that Men are messy (disgusting was the word she used though), but I do know that in many change initiatives I’ve observed it is the unspoken, unintended and often unthought about actions of leadership that can bring your programme to a crashing halt.
From the manager that still asks for one specific report even though we’ve spent a fortune on a new information system to the comment that something is ‘just an HR thing so let’s get on with it’.
From senior executives travelling first class after a general travel embargo to reduce costs to managers referring to their pet behavioural expectations/model/process when we have shifted to a new set of values and associated appraisal system.
I’m sure you can think I’ve more now I’ve started a list, but if you can’t you may want to see if Richard Argyris book ‘the unintended consequences’ is available in your part of the world as I found this many years ago and a lot of what he reported there struck a chord with me.
As a change agent it’s something I was often alert to and the words ‘what was the outcome you were looking for with that action/decision’ often became a forerunner to an ‘unintended consequences’ conversation. Whilst it’s something I think leaders need to be aware of in everything they do I think that change agents need to act as leaderships conscience. This is because it’s not easy to step outside your own head all the time, but it is easier to observe and think ‘does that match what we set out to achieve?’, ‘is that re-enforcing our new approach or undermining it?’, and ‘is that unintentional or a buy-in issue’.
And as our toilet stops prove its not the big ticket items that really establish perceptions, it’s the small and often necessary that set the tone for your organisation.