Change Lessons From the 2016 Presidential Election

Change management and the 2016 election

No matter your party affiliation, the results of the U.S. presidential election can teach us a lot about change leadership. It’s a lesson, I’m afraid, that both parties will ignore. At the same time, it may point the way for those who are feeling a sense of despair.

According to the latest Associated Press tally, Donald Trump received 290 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 228. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, received 60,981,118 popular votes to Donald Trump’s 60,350,241. That’s 47.6% of the popular vote to 47.1% with 5.2% to other candidates for those of you counting.

Set aside your feelings about the candidates, the Electoral College, or even the madness of the 2016 campaigns and consider only how a change leader might understand these results. To make the point more clearly, consider that Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 win against Barry Goldwater can teach us the same lessons. Johnson achieved the largest percentage of the popular vote in U.S. presidential election history at 61.05% and beat Barry Goldwater by 22.58 points.

But here’s the rub: No leader starts with 100% commitment to change. Even when a mandate seems clear, leaders face resistance, and by not recognizing this, they set themselves up for failure. Despite a decisive victory, Johnson still had more than one-third of the country doubting his agenda. This year, either candidate would have faced even greater opposition.

Corporate change leaders must confront the same issue. Jason, a Chief Technology Officer for a telecommunications firm, discovered this the hard way when he sponsored the implementation of new project and portfolio management technologies across the firm’s IT organization. He told the technology vendor that they could push hard because he had the full support of the CIO as well as his fellow CTOs.

“Just tell me if you get any resistance from the troops,” said Jason with a swagger. “I’ll stop by their desk personally to make sure they know their leaders are on board. They’ll fall into line. If they complain, it’s only because they’re too ignorant to know what they need.”

Two months later, Jason announced his resignation amidst an avalanche of vocal concerns not only from the “ignorant” troops, but from the majority of the leadership team. He felt devastated by their vote of no confidence. Even colleagues who had been advocates early on expressed strong concerns about the solutions he proposed.

As one project manager later stated, “He forgot that our culture is only superficially polite. We’ll yes you to your face, but work against you once you leave the room.”

Whether our change is a presidential election or a simple technology implementation, the lessons are the same:

No leader ever has 100% buy-in at the start of a change process even when on the surface it appears as if they do. During the campaign, Clinton did not have enough commitment for ultimate success even though polls proclaimed her victory long before the election. Trump, although victorious, is already facing protests emboldened by the fact the majority of Americans did not vote for him. Assuming a mandate is a recipe for failure.

Buy-in must be earned over and over again. Each day presents new information that can alter assumptions, challenge perspectives or create uncertainty. Strong change leaders never take commitment for granted. They earn it by continuing to make the case for change and by making sure they understand the needs and concerns of those who aren’t fully committed. And to that point . . .

It is essential to listen and understand the core needs of the opposition, no matter how “ignorant” or “deplorable.”  This explains one of the more notable reasons Clinton lost the election. Her campaign not only assumed strong enough commitment to take her to the White House–as did the majority of media, pundits and pollsters–they thought by demonizing the opposition they would convince many uncommitted or half-hearted Trump voters to change their opinion.

But who is ever convinced by an insult? Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign put so much energy into putting down Trump and his followers, they neglected the case for her vision and policies. The Clinton team gave up trying to influence people beyond pointing them to her website. They simply labeled 47.1% of the American people and made the election about that.

So, instead of an election about the best ideas, it became an election about which candidate was most deplorable.

And the American people shrugged.

They not only shrugged, they stopped being honest. When we insult people, we create an environment where people don’t share their opinions because they don’t want to be attacked. That’s one possible reason why the pollsters had it so wrong. People may have not liked Trump, the man, but they were given no room to even consider some of his ideas without being categorized negatively.

This is also the reason why Jason didn’t get honesty from his peers. Nobody wanted to be called stupid, often by the roll of his eyes, so they politely smiled, nodded, and fought him behind the scenes. When change leaders stop listening, resistance become resolute.

Connect with the needs of all your constituents. Most people who complain, blame, point a finger or express some other form of dissatisfaction are not just being negative. They have real needs, fears and concerns. They may not know how to express them in language acceptable to polite society or polished professionals, but the needs are there. Their expression may demonstrate an incomplete understanding of the problems or the possible solutions, but that does not make their point of view wrong. It makes it incomplete.

By connecting with the needs of others, change leaders build the trust required to engage people in the process of working together to both understand and solve problems. They also learn and develop a more complete understanding of their own. But connecting requires something too many change leaders resist . . .

Include others in the discussion. Discussion can be time consuming and messy, and we may hear things we would rather not hear. But if we are unwilling to make time for discussion, then we are creating the downfall of our change effort. We are creating the conditions where resistance thrives.

It is hard to have sympathy for failed projects, or campaigns, when this happens. When change leaders refuse to consider any other way of looking at the world but their own, when they refuse to consider any other way of solving an organization problem except for the solution they are pushing, then they are asking for it.

By ignoring or excluding our opponents, or worse, trying to silence them, we are giving them greater resolve to fight. What we resist not only persists, it grows in size. When we fail to include others in the discussion, we are building a wall that prevents us from seeing their resistance. More importantly, we are building a wall that prevents us from learning and most certainly from making the connections with people who are essential to our success.

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