Got Changes to Make? Don’t Stop Short!

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We all have changes to make. New systems to adapt to, new targets to hit, and new partners with which to collaborate. Most of us quickly reach for a PowerPoint deck. For others to see a visible change, however, don’t stop there.

Leaders draw energy from inspiring presentations and when shown new information we’ll attempt to incorporate it into our activities. Our personal values compel us to try and influence our actions more than our work environment.

The difficulty is, we assume our employees will react in the same way to our presentations, but most often, they won’t. This assumption makes it easy for us to over-rely on communication, resulting in less-than-expected behavior change. Most current change programs share this assumption.

Why do employees respond differently?

They see our presentations, hear what we say, and may briefly experiment with concepts, but the vast majority return to what they were previously doing because the work environment exerts pressure to maintain current activities. For employees, what they are accountable for is a more influential communicator than you or I.

An analogy may help us visualize employee behavior.

Imagine a spider sitting on a web in a doorway, with parts of its web connected to the top and sides of the doorframe. Now re-imagine the door frame is your organization and the strands of web connected to it are various accountabilities for process, reporting or other activities, and finally replace the spider in the middle with the current set of employee actions.

Employees’ actions are then a product, a balance, a trade-off among all the things for which they are accountable. This is exactly my conclusion after studying organizational change efforts in 72 organizations for three years.

Giving a presentation and expecting employees to adjust is like trying to move the ‘spider’ without first adjusting the web. To move the ‘spider’ (employee activities) to a new position we must adjust accountabilities to allow people to move to a revised, more optimal, equilibrium.

Have leaders always assumed employees will respond as we try to? Apparently. King Solomon, a reportedly wise individual, refuted this way of thinking 3,000 years ago saying, “Servants cannot be corrected with just words, though they understand, they won’t respond.”

Solomon observed that words give understanding but don’t change accountabilities – the reason activities stay where they are.

So, continue to give presentations as they build understanding and are a sign of our respect for employees’ intellects, ideas, and contributions. Just don’t stop there if you want behavior to change.
Modify leaders’ and employees’ accountabilities to motivate people to reset their daily actions in line with your goals.

Solomon summarized:

  • Words alone = understanding but little impact.
  • Words + accountability adjustments = understanding + rapid, substantial, long-lasting impact.

I think most employees know words don’t have the ‘change’ power we often think they have.

One multi-billion-dollar client organization needed to improve leadership, trust, work-culture, and operational issues across an essential service, 400-person division. Division leaders were so busy they routinely missed their own departmental meetings.

Our team distilled 35 different agendas down to common behavioral elements and suggested accountability changes to align leaders’ and later employees’ actions to this simplified agenda.

In a two-hour, Tuesday morning session, we presented to division leaders the consolidated agenda and specific changes to their accountabilities. Included were such radical suggestions as: leaders should listen to employees, ask for their opinions, and actually attend their own departments’ regular meetings.

Three days later, as our meeting coordinator walked through the division’s office area, two employees propelled her into the lunch room, asking, “Our manager went to a meeting on Tuesday morning led by two outside individuals. What did they do to our manager?”

The coordinator didn’t know how to respond. The employees continued saying, “Our manager went to that meeting Tuesday morning. He attended our departmental meeting that same afternoon and for the first time he listened to us, asked our opinion on things, and scared us half to death. What did they do to our manager?”

She explained the meeting outlined the simplified agenda which included operational and leadership actions like attending departmental meetings and asking for opinions prior to leaders sharing their own.

Here’s the important part. The two employees responded with, “Is this just a speech? Because around here speeches only last a week or two.”

There it is. In many previous instances these employees had seen ‘new’ ideas and initiatives come and quickly disappear. Think Solomon’s ‘just words’ and the web of accountabilities which hold activities.

The coordinator told them no, it wasn’t a speech. These leadership behaviors were now included in leaders’ annual performance assessments and that no one would get a raise unless they demonstrated these behaviors over the year.

“Oh,” the employees responded, “this will work then.” One division leader told us the behavioral impact of that Tuesday meeting (and its accountability changes) remained visible four years later.
I’d be happy to hear about your similar experiences with ‘words’ and actions.

Adapted from The Improvement Toolbox, by Keith N. Miles.

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