Posts Tagged ‘communication’


Monday, November 10th, 2014


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 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 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 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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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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Keep Doing That

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

I was traveling with my family on Spring Break. We stopped for lunch at the Toro Loco in Jackson, Ohio. The food was delicious and inexpensive, and the staff was focused and attentive.

After our meal, I tried to catch our waiter’s eye, but he was elusive. I was starting to feel anxious and frustrated, wanting to pay my bill and get back on the road. Just as I was about to get up and track him down, a patron from a nearby table walked over and said, “Pardon me. We’re a pretty tight-knit community around here. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I overheard you stating that you were traveling. You have a beautiful family. My wife and I have 3 kids of our own– a girl and two boys. It’s so nice to see well-behaved kids. I hope you’re not offended, but I’ve taken care of your meal. Thanks, and have a great day.”

I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We were shocked. The idea flashed in my mind that he was being sarcastic about my children, so I quickly reviewed the past half-hour in my mind, remembering their behavior. We had been talking together as a family, and all 3 of the kids had indeed been well-behaved. We hadn’t even used any electronic devices (think Angry Birds) to pacify the middle one. My eyes got a little misty. All I could manage was, “Thank you; I really appreciate it.” My wife and I continued to look at each other, feeling both blessed and dumbfounded.

After I recovered my senses, I stopped at my benefactor’s table, and said, “You humble me with your generosity. And I think you caught us on a good day.” We both laughed, and he said, “Have a safe trip.” Then I gathered my family and we left.

Over the next several days, that incident kept popping into my mind. This man’s action was sacrificial, generous, and bold. I felt like somehow I had to live up to the standard he expected. What could I do that would contribute to building my kids’ character? How could I influence them to continue growing in self-awareness and self-control?

Which was strange, because I likely would never see this man again. And he would likely never see me or my kids again.

I was struck by a couple of ideas:

  • Influence requires relationship. If we don’t have a relationship with a person, we won’t allow that person to be influential in our lives. But I had just met this man; how could he become so influential with me so quickly? Since I trusted his intent, I listened. Selfless intent generates trust, accelerates relationships, and creates influence.
  • He effectively said, “Whatever you’re doing to get this result, keep doing it, because it makes a difference to those around you.” How often do we (or our kids) hear stop doing that instead of keep doing that? Keep doing that is much more powerful in effecting long-lasting change.

I’m grateful that a stranger had the courage to influence me. We need more of that in our workplaces, our friendships, and our homes.

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Building Trust– Repairing Old Damage through Reconciliation

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

For the past four years, helping teams build high-trust relationships has been a significant portion of my consulting practice.  My clients and I achieved some decent results together, but something was missing from my approach.  Up until 2010, I had assumed that 2 people who have a damaged-trust relationship can shake hands, agree to work together, “let bygones be bygones,” and move forward in a trusting way.

I was wrong.

Trust is confidence in the competence and character of another, based on past experiences.  Higher levels of trust correlate with higher efficiency, productivity, satisfaction, loyalty, and profitability.

What causes a rift in trust between two people is that one (or both) of us feels harmed by some past behavior of the other.  Whether the harm was intentional or not, we learn to avoid that pain and be wary of the one who inflicted it.  Often we assume foul motives:  “She hurt me; she must have been trying to hurt me.”

In 2010, I had an epiphany about trust that changed the way I consult:  Each injury damages the relationship, and the damage adds up over time.  Until we go back and repair the damage, we can’t move forward in the relationship.

Repairing the damage is hard work.  It requires vulnerability, a willingness to forgive, accepting responsibility for the impact of our own behaviors, and some uncomfortable conversations.  Most people would rather ignore the damage and move forward.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Until there is reconciliation between the affected people, the level of trust will be capped by the amount of the unrepaired damage.

The key is to look inside ourselves before we try to reach out to others. Here’s a process I recommend to clients, called the Reconciliation Ladder:

Reconciliation Ladder

We start at the bottom rung.  The first 3 rungs involve determining what element of the damaged trust we each own (“my trash”), then doing something about it.  The next three rungs require reaching out to the other person and accepting responsibility for our own behaviors and impact.  The last two (top) rungs require us to talk about the other person’s contribution to the damaged trust (“your trash”).

It gets harder the higher we climb:

  • The bottom 3 rungs can happen in our own head and heart, so we have control.
  • The middle rungs require us to start being vulnerable by including a second person in the conversation, who may not be aligned with our game plan for reconciliation.
  • The top seems easier, because we’re focusing on others’ shortcomings, but it is the hardest to do well, because we have to carefully speak the truth about someone else’s trash.  The key here is the word “carefully.”  Another way to say that would be “with a loving heart” or “with kindness.”

In this process, we may be rejected.  The other person may not accept the apology, forgive us, or agree with our view of what caused the damage.  But that’s the risk we take.  And in my own relationships, I have found that there is great power in a genuine apology to soften even the hardest heart, over time.  Sometimes the other person won’t get on the ladder until they see me climbing.

Before 2010, I was asking people to leap up to grab the last rung on the ladder, without doing the hard and deliberate work of climbing, one rung at a time.  The ladder can seem daunting when viewed from the ground.  Thankfully, we don’t have to commit to the entire ladder all at once.   Even the first step up is helpful in starting to repair the damage.

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