I’m currently working with a company that wants to implement a sustainable and managed programme of organisational storytelling. They’re convinced it isn’t silly nor is it just a ‘flavour of the month’ magic leadership blue pill. They see it as a fundamental human communication tool and they’d like to leverage it for their own communication strategy’s objectives and enable their people to use it to better move people around them to change. They had no problem with the concept, the practice or the potential cost-benefits of organisational storytelling. Their primary concern was that it would become just another change effort that didn’t stick.
In that regard, their concerns are warranted. Something as uncommon and potentially nebulous such as organisational storytelling is no different from any large-scale change project like a force-fed software roll-out.
Research from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, later popularised by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made To Stick’ focused on the power in change situations of combining the rational and the emotional. They’re the ones who got the ball rolling on the phrase ‘The elephant and the rider.’ It’s all a wonderful oversimplification and neuro-scientists must be rolling in their hammocks but it’s a simple and useful mental model. The elephant is your emotional brain. The skinny feeble dude on top of the elephant is the rider – your rational brain. The rider knows the rules and your goals and what’s good for you in the long run and learns from experience. The elephant wants what it wants. The rider will see a pile of chocolate and say that you shouldn’t have any but could probably have a little bit. The elephant will say it can’t hear you because of the noise it’s making eating all this chocolate.
Apparently, a key to success in life generally and change in particular is to get our elephants and riders working together. The third element is to ‘shape the path.’ We need to give them a degree of autonomy but with a limited range. Some of you will be thinking that this makes sense. Some of you will be thinking that elephants can’t talk. That’s just your driver speaking.
One of the things that constrains or delays change is paralysis by analysis. People obsess over making the right decision and end up making no decision or a too late decision. There’s a classic study where researchers set up stalls at several farmers markets. Half the stalls offered three jams for sale with three taste test pots. The other half of the stalls offered twenty four jams and twenty four taste test pots. Which stalls do you think sold the most jam? Far and away the three choice stalls sold significantly more jams. Haven’t we been conditioned to think that we want choice? That more choices are good choices? You might think that but that’s not what the research shows.
Why is that? Regret, or the potential for it, is a powerful driver and constrainer of human behaviour, although not so much for elephants. We want to choose the best jam. The chances of making the best jam choice out of three are pretty good, especially if the three choices are very diverse, say, a berry jam, a marmalade and something with low or no sugar. (Ha, just kidding. I think stevia is straight out of Professor Snape’s lab at Hogwarts and causes flavour to become invisible.) But, with twenty four options, many quite similar, those odds of making the best choice plummet. And our brains, emotional nor rational, don’t like that. We probably wouldn’t construct elaborate decision matrices on complex spreadsheets for jams but that’s exactly what we do for a lot of decisions are work.
John P. Kotter is the world’s leading expert on change. He’s got that middle initial thing going on so there’s that for a start. Seriously, his book’s a classic and I highly recommend it. I MC’d his off-sider from Boston at a conference recently and I was impressed by their research-based but very practical structured approach. They have an eight-step process; Look it up. The first step to minimising the chances of your change initiative failing is to create a sense of urgency. If paralysis by analysis is a brake on change efforts then creating a sense of urgency is smart. Go on, the idea is only available for a limited time!!
They say we’ll never know which came first – the chicken or the egg. I say it’ll become a lot clearer once KFC starts serving breakfasts. Is it that restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian meal options because diners don’t order a lot of vegetarian meals or do diners not order a lot of vegetarian meals because restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian options? It’s a chicken and egg situation.
It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself.
You know when you’re in a conversation and the person you think you’re in a conversation with is having a different conversation, even though you’re both speaking with each other, and at some eventual point, one of you realises before the other that you’re talking at cross purposes? At that point, you have to either stop talking and backtrack, or you have to interrupt them. You know that look in their eyes just before they get what’s been happening, that confused, almost pained expression? Remember that face. That’s the face of change.
I recently needed to visit a firm that dealt in air conditioners. I was told it was in William Pickering Drive. I didn’t bother getting any more specific details such as the name of the firm or the actual street number. I drove along and saw in the distance a big red sign saying “34C” and a much smaller black and white sign saying “Climate Control.” In a brief conversational exchange with someone in passing in the reception area, I glibly commented that “34C” was a clever name for a firm dealing in climate control, although probably a tad warm for my tastes. I wouldn’t say what followed was a heated exchange (pun intended) but there was certainly escalated confusion, as I was sure the name of the company that dealt in climate control was “34C” whereas the reality and the other person’s perspective was that the company was called “Climate Control” and “34C” was their street number.
At some eventual point, the other person realised what had been going on and interrupted me. The few moments either side of that was the conversational equivalent of when you’re sitting in a chair and leaning back and you get to a point and you don’t know if you’re going to fall or stop yourself falling. I’m sure there was a confused and almost pained expression on my face – the face of change.
The theme of this issue of Employment Today is ‘Managing Change.’ It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself. Research shows that worrying about losing your job causes greater ill health than actually losing your job. Sarah Burgard from the University of Michigan has shown that job insecurity (fear) causes more illness than the eventual reality of unemployment.
So, what can canny employers do to prevent, or at least mitigate, any harm caused by potential change, actual change or the perception of the risks of possible change in the minds of the employees to which the changes happen? Let’s look to Hollywood for some answers.
With the synchronisation in recent years of movie release dates around the world and the tsunami of streaming and downloading or movies, a lot of our friends are seeing a lot of movies before we do. And, good friends that they are, they’d love nothing more to share their experience with us and encourage us to see their recommended films. The term “Spoiler Alert” has thus fallen into common usage as our good friends give us notice if anything they are about to say might ruin a critical story point or narrative twist.
This is the lesson from Hollywood for employers – DO THE OPPOSITE!
Provide spoilers at each and every stage that you can and repeat them more often than you think is necessary. The less uncertainty the better when it comes to managing change. It’s the uncertainty that causes the problems and damages the relationships and the mental and physical health. Change isn’t going to stop – both the change you’re deliberately and proactively provoking and the never-ending stream of reactive changes in today’s economy and workplaces. That’s the reality and will continue to be so. What you can control to a greater degree is the level of uncertainty. So, sprinkle out those spoilers like salt on takeaway French fries (way more than a normal person thinks is necessary.)
I’m performing in the NZ International Comedy Festival this year in a show called ‘The Grin Reaper.’ While it’s an hour of stand-up, its theme is about how to live longer, based on a great book on longevity studies called ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Buettner. Learning some life lessons from those who’ve lived the longest, they’ve distilled the research down into nine key things you can do to add ten quality years to your life. ‘Having purpose’ was one. ‘Wine at 5’ was another so that’s good news. A couple of others related to ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘handling stress.’ That’s where change presents itself. Managed badly, change can literally affect the quality and quantity of our years. Managed well, it can enhance both. Also, you should totally watch the movie ‘The Sixth Sense.’ It’s not so much about longevity but definitely about spoilers.
I like hearing about people who are looking for a place to live near their work. That’s just so… optimistic. Another symptom of optimism is New Year’s resolutions. It’s March and after three months is a pretty good time to step back and see how we’re tracking towards success with our New Year’s resolutions. (The other two best times are after an entire year and on January 2nd.) This annual process for many of us in our personal lives is curiously analogous to the more formal goal setting processes that occur in our workplaces. In our workplaces, we’re trying to increase sales by 3% or decrease costs by 5% or reduce staff turnover by half, whereas our personal goals might be to lose 10 kilograms. You don’t often see an employer come up with that kind of workplace weightloss goal. (Unless the goal is for the department to lose 95 kilograms and we call those kilograms ‘Barry.’)
What I like about New Year’s resolutions and workplace goal setting is that, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, they are, at the very least, an attempt to be proactive and take some degree of control rather than bounce around the random pinball machine that is the modern international economy. This perception of control or influence over our own futures is a fundamental human need. And I’m assuming that for most of you, most of your employees are some pretty fundamental humans.
Your human brain receives over eleven thousand signals from your senses every day. Of those, you’ll consciously process only about forty of them. The rest get dealt with by our good old and efficient subconscious. Our primal instincts prefer ‘same old same old.’ Sameness isn’t threatening. New things could be threatening. From a rational perspective, change, progress and innovation have no doubt been fantastic for the collective society but nevertheless the first thing our individual subconscious brains instinctively care about is not dying. It is old fashioned and emotional that way. Changes, which could contain potential threats, stimulate a physiological stress response, even if your suggested departmental reorganisation isn’t literally life-threatening. It takes time for us mere humans to work through and determine that the change may not only be unthreatening but potentially advantageous. Unfortunately while we’re still slaves to the feelings of stress caused by the emotional response to a perceived threat, the rational bits of our brain play second fiddle. This is normally occurring at the same time that leaders are explaining rationally why the change is happening. Sound familiar?
There’s the old and feeble joke that change is inevitable except from Council carpark payment machines. Change is constant and the pace of change is increasing. Look it up using your smartphone which was superseded about six weeks after you bought it. If change is perceived as external and happening to us then that contributes to a sense of powerlessness which increases feelings of helplessness and pessimism. Hardly conducive to a cooperative or productive workplace environment.
So often, leaders with change projects focus on the tasks – get prices, evaluate vendors, install hardware – and the steps that are people-oriented still tend to be about tasks – training for example. Early and often, these leaders of change need to plan and implement steps to help people deal with the natural cycle of emotional reaction to the prospect of change. Too many times I’ve asked managers how they’re dealing with how people are reacting to the change process and been answered, “Communication.” I ask how that’s going and get answered, “Its done,” accompanied by a wave of a printout of an email or three. One-way linear broadcast communication is not dealing with people’s emotional reaction to change and it never will be.
Nikolas Westerhoff’s recent article in ‘Scientific American’ cited research that shows that older people find it harder to change and deal with change due to brain chemistry. That’s disturbing but not as disturbing as them defining “older” as “over thirty.” Young people may be able to handle change but if you’ve ever witnessed them at a cash register, they struggle to make change. (OK, enough old-man defensiveness. Sorry kids.)
Another key step for leaders of change is to create a shared sense of urgency. Getting back to our New Year’s resolutions, losing weight because you ‘should’ is vague, unmotivating and unlikely to drive anyone to success. Losing weight to fit into a wedding dress by June (for some) could generate a sense of urgency. (Yes I am a guy and if I want to fit into a wedding dress, that’s my business. Don’t judge me – I’m over 30!)
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Executive Leasing: Executive, former lease model, one previous careful owner, normal wear and tear, seeks new home…
Executive leasing – What, who, when, how and sometimes why? I leased a car once. I think it was because there were tax advantages or because it was better to treat it as operational expenditure rather than capital or maybe it was because the dashboard navigation computer’s voice was Scarlett Johansson. Do we make executive leasing decisions the same way? That new manager you contracted for accounts payable with the MBA – not only has he improved productivity and slashed costs but he’s also got the voice of Scarlett Johansson! Double-plus whammy right there. No?
I suppose one of the foundation beliefs underlying the desirability of executive leasing is that management is management is management and it doesn’t really matter if what you’re managing is insurance sales, museum curating or nuclear power generation. If you screw up nuclear power generation then your workplace may end up as a museum (in 140 years) and you’ll certainly need insurance so maybe there are benefits to overlapping knowledge there. You can delegate specific technical tasks to experts and focus on those universal people leadership thingies that you’ve convinced multiple people that you’re an expert in. Or you might be a practitioner of some acronymmed discipline that applies in any industry like HR, PR or BS. (And if you cannot distinguish between HR, PR and BS, then perhaps you really are management material.)
I recently MC’d a series of award shows for the Dairy Industry. At black tie dinners, dairy trainees, farm managers and sharemilkers in full black tie regalia received well deserved acclaim for jobs well done and single-handedly saving our nation’s economy. (The Swandri company really need to come out with a tuxedo. Give me a call. I can hook you up with a market.)
I am a townie and must admit if there are two words I don’t want to see together in a sentence I hear at my house, those two words are “milk solids.” (Unlike dairy farmers who might see the words “milk solids” but hear the words “white gold,” which appropriately enough was the theme of their events.) My point is that every industry and workplace has its own very specific jargon and psyche. I’m not rejecting the concept of executives flitting about the place but one of the disadvantages is that they need to get up to speed with the language of where they’ve arrived at. Or maybe this is an advantage? I’d think about it some more but I’m not feeling too well as I can’t get “milk solids” out of my mind.
I read an article on cracked.com about some non-English words that the English language desperately needs. Some cultures just have a different view of the world and their language and vocabulary has developed some insights from which we could benefit. That’s as true of workplace cultures as it is of languages. A definite benefit of executive leasing is the short-term lesser-risk injection of fresh perspective, processes and ideas, challenging the status quo and sacred cows.
Sure your leased executives aren’t going to add value instantly with great words like the Georgian “Shemomedjamo,” meaning to eat beyond the point of being completely full just because you can, or the Tibetan “Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu,” meaning giving an answer unrelated to the question. Frankly, in today’s business world, if you can master Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu, then you are destined for a salary package that will enable you and your family to shemomedjamo to your heart’s content. (And by “content,” I mean “demise.)
What’s that right on the tip of your tongue – that’s right – bacon! And also on the tip of your tongue is a question – how else is executive leasing like leasing a car?
That car I said I leased – on returning it, the dealer inspected it because they were going to re-sell it. It needed to be in ‘reasonable’ condition for a three year old vehicle. At some point I, or one of my ‘friends,’ had opened a door onto a slope in such a way that a tiny corner of the driver’s door had been snapped off. I’d never noticed it but the inspector did notice it like it was a $1000 noticeable thing. If I’m milking this analogy of executive leasing compared to car leasing, then there should definitely be an end-of-lease inspection and the poor old executive should be returned in a reasonable condition. Who knows what might have snapped during their employment with you?
I write the funny last page ‘Last Laugh’ in the magazine ‘Employment Today.’ I try and keep well ahead of deadline so my articles are usually written a couple of months ahead of when they actually get published. The one I’m currently writing is for an edition where the theme will be the future of the workplace. There’s predicting the future and there’s making the future and there’s guessing and there’s not bothering. I think those are the options. People try to predict trends, fashions, sales targets, market forces, lotto numbers, weather, earthquakes. There are winners and losers. Experts are routinely wrong and even more routinely remiss at noticing their errors. Reporters cite the expert de jour ad infinitum on whatever their topic is regardless of whatever their track record was.
I do own the ‘Back To The Future’ DVD box set so I could look it up but I’m not going to. I think that 2015 might be the year that Marty McFly and Doc went to from 1985? Might have been August? They made some real efforts at guesstimating a vision of a future – a future which is about to hit us smack in the face. Again, we’re probably going to be missing our flying cars but I think the ‘backward pants’ thing is depressingly close to the mark. Bieber may already be doing that.
So, as I write my article in the present about the future for a magazine that exists in the future, there are a fair few predictable types out there with their own predictions for 2014 and employee engagement. Some are tossing around new buzzphrases like ‘Engagement 2.0. Yuk yuk. Here’s one set of predictions I find quite sensible. Here’s another which might be right(ish) but I find a little worrisome. (Is that how you spell “worrisome”? I’m not sure which… concerns me.)
I might see if the kids want to watch ‘Back To The Future.’ Some great quotes, “Roads! Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”
Yes you will Doc, yes you will. Sorry.