Despots, Group Think and the Ugly Side of Institutional Optimism

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In my personal life, I am an optimist.  I believe fully in the power of positive thinking and the value of spreading good cheer wherever I go, if only because it makes life more fun and enjoyable.

But when it comes to managing change, I believe in realism.  A key component of the Architecture of Change is being brutally honest about the challenges that may impact the success of the project.  If you are going to prepare to manage change effectively, you have to understand the organization’s underbelly.  You have to understand the 3F’s–the fears, frustrations and failures–of the organization and its people.  Only then will you understand how to navigate resistance.  Only then will you understand how to leverage the initiative to turn dissatisfaction into satisfaction and apathy into enthusiasm.  It provides the depth of understanding required to make the emotional connections that accelerate acceptance.

Do you have to go that deep to drive change?  No, but then your project—whether a technology or outsourcing implementation, merger, divestiture, restructuring or any other kind of change—is nothing more than a technical implementation.  You may get the benefits of the new technology or process, but you miss the larger opportunity for achieving the benefits of broader behavioral or cultural change:  better utilization of process or technology; increased cost savings; or improved organizational effectiveness.  It’s the difference between “completing the project” or “achieving the real results.”

The challenge with understanding the requirements for change at this deeper level is that it demands a high degree of discipline, desire and patience.  It requires that you listen without trying to solve or fix or judge or react to the “negativity” that you hear.  Only then can you take it all in, go beyond the superficial symptoms and solutions, and identify broader strategies for achieving more sustainable results.

This can be especially challenging for those executives who don’t like “whiners,” who want “solutions, not problems,” or who want their people to have “positive attitudes.”

Just the other day I reported the results of a readiness assessment to a twitchy exec who anxiously awaited the report of weeks of interviews and focus groups designed to give feedback about the technology and process change he was implementing.  I had the fun job of telling him what, deep down, he already knew:  the customers were at best apathetic, and at worst, hostile toward the change.  In addition, his direct reports were concerned that the change was “doomed for mediocrity.”

I didn’t make it beyond the first couple of PowerPoint bullets before he slammed his fist on the conference table and said, “I highly disagree with these results!  You don’t know what you are talking about.  I don’t like the language you’ve used to provide this feedback.  All this negativity!  If you want to advise this organization you are going to have to focus on more of the positives.  We have to tell this organization the change will be good for them and I’ve hired you to help put an end to this complaining.”

He eventually calmed down and admitted that he had heard all of this before.  And he also realized the words he didn’t like were direct quotes from his organization (and I edited out the most hostile comments!).  But he continued to struggle with what to do with the information.  His urge was to gather everyone in a room, give them a tongue lashing and to tell them if they just changed their attitude . . .

I love the above video.  The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) produces fantastic content with genius graphics, and in this video, shares the enlightening commentary of Barbara Ehrenreich.  From 1991 to 1997, Ehrenreich was a regular columnist for Time magazine. Currently, she contributes regularly to The Progressive and has also written for the New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Z Magazine, In These Times, Salon.com, and other publications.

Whether or not you agree with her politics (which for some may immediately disqualify her as an “approved” voice for business), the lessons in this video are important for understanding how to manage change well.

It’s actually a different variation of the Boy Scout motto:  Be Prepared.

Be prepared to manage the worst case resistance.  Be prepared to handle strong emotions.  Be prepared to find multiple ways of getting through to stakeholders.  Be prepared by understanding the influence networks, the politics, the cultural norms, and the variety of stakeholder perceptions, interests and desires.

Be prepared to accept the good, bad and ugly that exists within our organizations and to realize it represents a rich diversity of brain power that, when tapped, will help us adapt, create, invent and collaborate on the way to great results.

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2 thoughts on “Despots, Group Think and the Ugly Side of Institutional Optimism

  1. Hey Erik,

    Well written! And so true. My experiences as a relationship coach and therapist are at times similar to yours with the “twitchy exec”. Often people know but don’t want to know what it will really take to make a deep change. I like the distinction you make between “completing the project” or “achieving the real results.” I believe that deep change takes time, commitment, courage and perseverance.

    Great to see you at HWS.
    ~Amy

    1. Thanks, Amy! Dropped shoulders, deep sighs and pursed lips are almost a universal expression the moment execs realize the “time, commitment, courage and perseverance” it will take to create deep change, aren’t they? It’s also a wonderful moment when they decide to take the first step down the road less traveled. It’s great to know they have support like you to help them walk the path.

      Wonderful to see you as well!

      Erik

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