Posts Tagged ‘change’

Hollaback

Monday, November 10th, 2014

hollabak

10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman has attracted a lot of attention. The 2-minute video shows a woman walking down the street (minding her own business) in Manhattan, and how strangers treat her.

A grassroots initiative called Hollaback! partnered with Rob Bliss Creative to capture 10 hours of video of Shoshana Roberts. The footage was edited down to the 2 minutes we see. The video does a good job creating emotional impact; we can empathize with Shoshana as she walks the gauntlet of less-than-courteous men. The video has been viewed 35 million times (as of Nov 10, 2014). Clearly it has struck a chord.

But is Hollaback’s approach going to result in sustainable transformation?

To drive durable change, persuasive communications require two key elements: a clear vision of the future and a meaningful call to action.


A clear vision of the future requires a sharp contrast between what is, and what could be.

Much of the online conversation about the video has centered on which catcalling behaviors are inappropriate. This isn’t a worthless conversation, but it muddles the point. By including both marginal (friendly greetings from strangers) and clearly inappropriate behaviors (invading her personal space for 5 minutes), the creators of the video lose control of the narrative. What is the audience being invited to believe?

Here’s a sticky headline we could use:

Catcalling is bullying. Real men treat women with dignity and respect.

This message increases the contrast between the current state and the desired future state.

We could create an even sharper distinction by cutting out the marginal behaviors, leaving in the most inappropriate behaviors, and adding in examples of gentlemen treating Shoshana like a lady (assuming that happened during the 10 hours of filming).


A meaningful call to action clarifies the most desirable behaviors—the ones that will make the biggest difference in driving change.

To be fair, there is a call to action in this video— a request that the viewer donate to Hollaback! That may help with street harassment indirectly, but it is less than ideal. How about an alternative approach, one designed to directly shift the attitudes and behaviors of some of our stakeholders?

There are three stakeholder groups involved in this issue: catcallers (those who harass), targets (those being harassed), and interveners (those who witness the harassment).

Here are some meaningful calls to action for the different groups:

  • Catcallers: Treat all women the way you would like other men to treat your mother, your wife, your sister, or your daughter.
  • Targets: Only you can let a catcaller make you feel less than infinitely valuable. Don’t give up that power. If you feel unsafe, get to a safe location or ask for help from others who are around.
  • Interveners: Tell a catcaller, “That’s not OK. This woman deserves to be treated better than that.” If the harassment persists, stay near the situation to ensure it resolves peacefully.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with investing in Hollaback! with a cash donation, but an investment of energy in deliberately changing these behaviors would drive more durable and meaningful change.


A clear vision of the future and a meaningful call to action give our persuasive communications a fighting chance to actually make a difference. It takes more effort than some are willing to invest, but a little effort here can pay big dividends.

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Acknowledging Pain

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

According to reports I’m hearing, my experience applying for a policy on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace has been pretty typical – I’ve spent many hours navigating the site and trying to get help from well-intentioned customer service reps with no more power or knowledge than me.

The two elements of this experience that are most fascinating to me are 1) how the President and his team communicated about healthcare.gov before its launch, and 2) how they have since responded to the furor over the actual launch.

What can we learn from this unfolding story, from a change management perspective?

Before the launch, the White House didn’t acknowledge the predictable negative aspects of implementing the Affordable Care Act to those who would be affected by it.  In fact, President Obama made big promises before the launch that were likely impossible to deliver.

Since healthcare.gov went live on Oct 1, it has had some significant problems that have disappointed many stakeholders.  It seems that a key part of the White House strategy during October was to ignore and minimize the negatives.  For weeks, I heard the euphemism “glitches” almost daily.  In a segment I heard on NPR, the President answered concerns about the website by re-directing attention to positive aspects of the program.  Re-direction works well for irrational children having temper tantrums (“How about some ice cream?”), but not for angry adults who have legitimate concerns.

For the first 29 days post-launch, there was a lot of buck-passing, but not much blame-taking.  Secretary Sebelius and President Obama have both recently apologized and said they are accountable, which has helped settle some stakeholders down.

When implementing a disruptive change, leaders build trust and commitment by 1) acknowledging the pain they anticipate causing, and 2) taking ownership and apologizing for the unanticipated pain they cause.

Disruptive change often hurts.  Even when a change is perceived as beneficial, moving from the present (in which one is competent and comfortable) to a new future (in which one is not yet competent nor comfortable) introduces pain.  The pain may not always be as bad as what users of healthcare.gov are experiencing, but it is in many cases.

Leaders who fail to talk authentically about the pain they’re causing erode trust. When those affected by change don’t have the opportunity to mentally and emotionally prepare for the pain, it feels less manageable to them when it occurs.  They can feel betrayed, and whatever commitment and buy-in a leader generated earlier in the change process can evaporate.  Too often, we want to rescue others from conversations about pain too quickly.  I’ve seen leaders tentatively and apologetically broach the topic of pain, then, as quickly as possible, turn to a more comfortable topic.  I call this “pivoting to unicorns and rainbows.”  Often I remind leaders to be open and upfront about the pain they’re introducing to their organizations.  I warn them about the tendency to avoid conversations about the pain and the need to let people “sit in the pain.”  Those leaders nod agreeably then go out and pivot to unicorns and rainbows.  This has taught me that this behavior (authentically predicting and acknowledging the pain caused by organizational change) is surprisingly difficult.

Leaders who don’t hold themselves accountable for the impact of their changes also erode trust.  Sometimes leaders feel they shouldn’t have to apologize for the pain that others experience.  Maybe they didn’t make the decisions that caused pain.  Or maybe they did make the decisions, but incompetence downstream caused the pain.  Or, maybe they feel that apologizing implies they had foul motives.   In all these circumstances, I recommend being accountable and apologizing for the pain.  Humans have strong survival and self-defense mechanisms.  When we get hurt, we usually try to avoid getting hurt again.  We erect emotional barriers, and we tend to ascribe bad motives to whomever we blame for hurting us.  It’s very hard to be in right relationship with a person who has hurt us but doesn’t acknowledge the damage.  Our personal and professional relationships require a measure of transparency and vulnerability in order to generate trust.  Most of us don’t have a significant personal relationship with President Obama, but when we’re implementing disruptive change, relationships with our teams and other stakeholders are key to our organizational and personal success.

I trust the leader who predicts, “This is going to hurt.”

I also trust the leader who apologizes, “I’m sorry that hurt.”

Nothing softens the hard heart like a genuine apology.

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Polarizing

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Sen. Mitch McConnell rolled out a 7-foot, 3-inch stack of paper wrapped in a red ribbon.  This stack purports to contain the 20,000 pages of regulations created to flesh out the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (“Obamacare”).  Regardless of your politics, the Red Tape Tower makes an impression.

Since its unveiling, the stack of paper has become quite popular.  A quick web search reveals instagram photos, facebook posts, Average Joes posing with the tower, and behind-the-scenes action sequences showing its movement backstage at CPAC.  The tower even has a twitter handle: @theredtapetower.

Emotionally-engaging symbols shape the conversation.

Does the symbol dramatically oversimplify a complex topic?  Absolutely.  Is that the point?  Absolutely.

Mitch is trying to move hearts and minds.  He has struck a resonant chord with some folks.  There is pent-up frustration with the ACA of 2010, and the tower has served as a sort of megaphone for some of those frustrated people, a way to “speak out” quickly, easily, and visually.  “Click to share” takes away the need to communicate complicated thoughts on the topic in prose.

Of course not everyone reacts favorably to the Red Tape Tower.  But Sen. McConnell wasn’t going for 100% “likes”; he was framing the conversation.

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A Sugar-Coated Satan Sandwich

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

This past Tuesday, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted in favor of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the “debt deal”), but he wasn’t happy about it.  He described it as a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.”

He’s not the only one eating a big helping of nastiness; frontline workers in many organizations are gagging on their own Satan sandwiches.

Oftentimes people ask me what I do for a living.  I respond with a question, “Do you like having change shoved down your throat?”  The answer: “No!  Does anyone?”  Then I respond that I help leaders in organizations not do that.

A leader’s first instinct when faced with dissent may be to crack down on the rebellion: “In these desperate times, you’re with me, or you’re against me.  I need everyone toeing the line so we can get through this quickly.”  But when the threat of coercion diminishes, frontline engagement and commitment wane.

Some leaders hire a change management consultant because they want their stubborn employees to get in line.  “Can you get those intransigent holdouts to see reason?  Maybe if you make it look better, they’ll get on board.”

But no matter how much sugar we put on that Satan sandwich, it won’t go down easy for Rep. Cleaver, because it isn’t his sandwich.

Owned solutions are better than optimal solutions.

Leaders must engage their teams early and often, to drive higher levels of commitment.  When people get their grubby fingerprints all over a solution, they own it.  When it only has the leader’s grubby fingerprints on it, no one wants to eat it.

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Pablum – The Silent Killer

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

“Pablum,” he said.

I’m fairly proud of my vocabulary, but I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what that word meant.  “It’s mush,” he said, “It’s tasteless, and there’s nothing there to chew on.”

I was at Guidant Corporation, and we were being acquired.  He was a VP in charge of integrating the two companies’ sales forces, and he was describing the messages we were producing to educate our employees.

We then had a conversation about whether these messages were even worth publishing.  Would we lose credibility by saying nothing real and nothing new?  Would people be less likely to pay attention next time, assuming we had nothing meaningful to say?

That was 2005.  In the intervening years, I’ve discovered how rare it is to have a leader ask such questions, to demand more than safe and mushy messaging.  Many leaders navigating their organizations through disruptive change don’t have that same instinct, and end up communicating either Pollyanna messages (“Guys, isn’t this great?  The future is sunshine and roses!”) or messages that are so general, no one understands how the changes will affect them.  In those organizations, the messages are usually very well-written– but good writing and good communication are two different things.

Fast forward to 2011…

Jodi Underwood, the Director of HR at Citizens Energy Group in Indianapolis, helped me develop a model for communicating effectively during times of change:

The model has two axes.

The x-axis reflects a message’s level of authenticity.  Oftentimes, leaders assume that “safe” messaging is the safer route, because they can avoid controversy and tough topics.  But it isn’t safer.  “Safe” messages generate boredom and disengagement, which are riskier in the long run.

The y-axis reflects a message’s level of specificity.  Sometimes during an organizational change, leaders can’t be as specific as they’d like, because the details just haven’t been worked out yet.  In those cases, I advise leaders to start figuring out the details that matter to stakeholders, as quickly as possible.

Should leaders then wait to communicate until all the details have been hammered out, and politically it is feasible to speak more plainly?

Absolutely not.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and people will fill the communications void with all kinds of creative scenarios, none of them good.  Communicate now, with what you have, but always fight for more authenticity and more specificity.

The gravitational pull of planet Status Quo drags us up, and to the left, on the model.  We must actively invest energy into moving down and to the right.  But it’s worth the investment.  Real and detailed messages stimulate new ideas and questions in people’s minds.  They open up lines of communication and invite others into a dialogue.  They drive deeper engagement, which leads to higher levels of commitment and less resistance to change.

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