Momentum: 3 Principles to Keeping Change Alive

Got your disco on? Research shows that if faced with the need to perform CPR on a person in cardiac distress, humming the Bee Gees song, “Stayin’ Alive” will help the individual administering care maintain a rhythm close to the 100 beats per minute recommended for CPR by the American Heart Association.

While there are several critical elements to administering CPR correctly, the key findings here relate to speed and rhythm. Care administered too fast, too slow or too inconsistently greatly reduces the efficacy of treatment and greatly increases the risk of heart damage and even death. Efficacy is enhanced with consistent momentum.

It’s not that different for us as leaders of change. Now, at the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll draw no further connections between the life-giving efforts you give your fellow citizens and those you give your organization. (And with that, I ask that you forgive my use of the words “live” and “die”). The connection I want to draw is one distinctly about momentum — that when the momentum of our change efforts die, the prospects of those efforts die with them.

Think back to the last unfulfilled change program your leadership team introduced. Chances are good that it evolved something like this:

  1. Leadership holds a big launch announcement and with it, introduces new internal communication channels dedicated to “keeping you up-to-date” on the program.
  2. The program team produces a few months of regular project updates featuring testimonials from various business heads about the benefits the change will bring their business units.
  3. A month or two or three goes by without updates.
  4. You begin to hear rumors that the program is in trouble.
  5. Leadership holds a big program update to “bring you up to speed on the latest great developments.” You learn that the rollout date has been pushed back.
  6. A month or two or three or four of silence follows.
  7. Leadership holds a big launch announcement about the next big change program. This program will address the business dilemmas the last big change program was supposed to solve.
  8. Your teammates grumble about another “big waste of money” and express a lack of confidence in this – and perhaps any – future initiatives.

Sounds cynical, yes, but if you’ve worked in an organization where this scenario has not played out, stay there for the rest of your career because you’ve reached the promised land.

We know in our guts why communication closes down over time: We don’t know what to say when the future looks uncertain. It’s the number one question clients ask me, “What do I say when I don’t have an answer?”

When the road to change gets tough — and we know it will — follow these three principles to help you maintain consistent leadership momentum:

  1. Don’t hole up. Yes, your time is likely being consumed by program meetings. And yes, the future of the program may be uncertain. But despite what you might think, word of program distress is leaking under your door and the interpretation of it is likely worse than its reality. Stay as committed to your communication efforts as you were at launch. Holing up kills your consistency. Keep a steady pace to your communications.
  2. Be a proactive voice, not a Pollyanna. When forced to communicate about an uncertain future, the temptation is strong to appear too optimistic, too reassuring. We think that’s what our employees want from us. But to do so puts leaders at risk of a breach of trust with employees if things do fall apart. Instead, acknowledge challenges (to the extent you can ethically do so) and discuss plans for mitigating them. Employees understand that plans change; they just want to be assured that they are working for leaders who are capable of meeting the challenges ahead.
  3. Maintain connection. Leadership is lonely. And for many reasons it will remain so. But the most successful change programs (and the most successful leaders, for that matter) are the ones that maintain 2-way — upward and downward — communication channels consistently. You need to hear what your people have to say and they need access to you. Access builds connection and connection builds faith.

Step out of your office right now and take a walk. Ask the first person you see their latest thoughts on the change programs you’re leading right now. Keep on moving down the hall until you’ve filled your head. 100 beats per minute should be a good pace. Then let us know what you learned.

Telling Words: How to Read the Mood of Your Organization

Unless you’re living in a closet you know that mid-term elections are less than a week away. At this stage in the race, would you call the front-runners “progressive” or “extreme”? Is this election about “reform” or government “takeover”?

National Public Radio (NPR) is tracking the language trends at play within this year’s race to November with their Fighting Words feature. The word to watch this week is “reform,” up 11% in its usage over last week. Democrats this week like “recovery”; Republicans this week prefer to speak about “jobs.”

Language use reads like a collective Rorshach test, revealing the underlying hopes, fears and boogiemen in our communal closets.

What can the trends in your team’s language tell you about the state of your organization? Here are two reasons and one tool for finding out.

Tilt's word cloud

Tilt's word cloud via Wordle.net

>> Reason One: Employees are more in tune with the optimism and anxieties trending on the front lines than are their leaders. Employees pay attention to and talk about the issues critical to their work lives. Whether explicit or not, employees tell you themselves about the stability of your organization. Begin your analysis with a study of the key words employees use in feedback to their leaders.  You have better access to this than you might imagine, for example: submissions to all-employee feedback channels, comments on corporate, employee and leader blogs, replies to corporate communications, internal chat and discussion boards. By watching the language trending on these formal and informal channels you gain precious insight into the minds of your people.

>> Reason Two: Data provides leaders new audience insight and (hopefully) results in better employee connections. Leaders and the communicators who support them are — despite the best intentions — still notoriously prone to assumption. We assume that “in these hard times” our employees want to hear about the vast sums of money the newest change program will save the company. Sure, cost savings matter to those who own budgets, but to most others they translate to further job insecurity and more work for the same pay. If you’re in a leadership position or supporting one who is, analyze the last speech, email or presentation you delivered to your organization (better yet, analyze all three). What language rises to the surface? Now analyze the same employee feedback channels identified above. How do they compare? Are you speaking to the cares and concerns of your people? If not, shift your focus. If you are, pat yourself on the back and then figure out what it will take to stay in sync.

>> And a Tool: Wordle.net. While there are many language tracking tools available, one of the easiest and most economical (read: free) available for use today is Wordle.net. Wordle allows users to quickly generate “word clouds” — a visual representation of most prominently used words — of almost any text or web site.

Still not convinced you’ll learn much? I just ran a wordle of Tilt’s blog, shown above. I love that the word “conversation” stands prominently in the corner. But “marketing” and “change” attain equal weight on this site, not a good sign for a company who offers expert client leadership on navigating change, not marketing. And what about the prominence of the word “Duct”? I apparently refer quite a few readers to the Duct Tape Marketing site. That might make owner John Jantsch happy, but it shows me I have some fine tuning to do.

Tell us what you’ve learned from your analysis.

3 Keys to Managing Tough Emotional Conversations

Clients approach me regularly with variations on a theme. The question goes something like this:

“I’ve got a meeting this afternoon with one of my team members and it is not going to be pretty. She’s upset. How do I handle it?

Whether a manager-to-employee conversation, service professional-to-customer conversation, or spouse-to-spouse conversation, the guidance I give is always the same. 1) Acknowledge their emotions; 2) Discuss a plan; 3) Give back some control.

  1. Acknowledge emotions. No interpersonal progress can be made until the upset party feels their emotions are acknowledged. You can discuss solutions and next steps all you want but until the other party feels you understand and acknowledge why they’re upset, you’re just wasting breath.

    Example: “This situation sounds very frustrating for you and I can understand why it would be.”
  2. Plan a solution. Some issues have clear paths to resolution; those are fairly easy to agree on. But what do you say to an employee or customer or spouse when you don’t yet know how to resolve the issue at hand? Discuss a plan for getting there. Example: “I don’t have all of the answers to your questions yet. But I will speak with our business unit leadership throughout the week. I will update you by end of day Friday.”
  3. Give back some control. Emotions are most volatile when people feel vulnerable. Managers tell us  not to worry about organizational changes. Customer service agents tell us not to worry about the same over billing issues happening next month.  Our spouse tells us not to worry – they’ll remember to drop the time-critical paperwork off today. People worry because they have reason to worry. Telling them otherwise gains us nothing. Instead, provide opportunities to engage the other party further in the resolution of the issue at hand.

    Example: “I will share your ideas with our leadership; I encourage you to submit them to the employee feedback mailbox, as well.”

A job aid for you and your team available here via SlideShare.

Mama's got a new favorite (blog)

I just fell in love. And I’m willing to share the object of my desires with you. The Engaging Brand, a blog and podcast from Anna Farmery, portrays so much of what I try earnestly to relay to my own clients: that communication is about engagement. And not much else. When you’re engaged it means you’re connected with another; it means that you understand another, or that you’re doing the tough work of trying to; it means you’re getting somewhere, regardless of speed and pain levels; it means that you’ve been invited and able to pass along a piece of yourself.

Without engagement, you may as well be standing alone in a field with your feet stuck in the mud calling for a taxi.

So, check out The Engaging Brand, whether you’re in the business to sell product or lead employees, Anna’s likely got the goods to get you there.

The Real Pain of Change

For all of the lip service we consultants can be guilty of giving to the “pain of change,” let’s hope we’re touched by our clients and their experiences enough to understand — personally — that the pain of change is more than theoretical or conceptual. Sometimes it’s a knife in the side. . .

I’ve been on the phone regularly this week with a colleague undergoing management change in her organization. Specifics aside, my colleague is living a case study: that people who once had power don’t give it up without a fight, that management changes often leave leadership vacuums and long periods of strife in their wake, and that what once was a dream team can quickly become a dysfunctional nightmare.

Our conversations have been an exercise in listening and in strategy. And I’ve been reminded of the following:

  • That progress doesn’t always elicit celebration. Progress is messy and, here’s that word again, painful. But I find it worthwhile always to recognize progress for progress’ sake. The progress in my colleague’s case is hard to find, but it’s there and finding and recognizing it helps move issues forward.
  • That today starts where yesterday left off, not two days ago or last week or last year. It’s easy to slide back in time to drudge up old issues, but that’s backward, not forward, thinking. Starting where you left off yesterday is the only way to maintain productive momentum.
  • That we may not own our own destiny, but we do own our integrity. We’re the only ones who can destroy that.

The Real Pain of Change

For all of the lip service we consultants can be guilty of giving to the “pain of change,” let’s hope we’re touched by our clients and their experiences enough to understand — personally — that the pain of change is more than theoretical or conceptual. Sometimes it’s a knife in the side.

I’ve been on the phone regularly this week with a colleague undergoing management change in her organization. Specifics aside, my colleague is living a case study: that people who once had power don’t give it up without a fight, that management changes often leave leadership vacuums and long periods of strife in their wake, and that what once was a dream team can quickly become a dysfunctional nightmare.

Our conversations have been an exercise in listening and in strategy. And I’ve been reminded of the following:

  • That progress doesn’t always elicit celebration. Progress is messy and, here’s that word again, painful. But I find it worthwhile always to recognize progress for progress’ sake. The progress in my colleague’s case is hard to find, but it’s there and finding and recognizing it helps move issues forward.
  • That today starts where yesterday left off, not two days ago or last week or last year. It’s easy to slide back in time to drudge up old issues, but that’s backward, not forward, thinking. Starting where you left off yesterday is the only way to maintain productive momentum.
  • That we may not own our own destiny, but we do own our integrity. We’re the only ones who can destroy that.