Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

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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An Imperfect Metaphor

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

My wife is a biochemist by training, and she was the one who came up with the name “Catalyst” for my fledgling consulting practice in 2006.  A catalyst is a substance that accelerates a reaction without itself being changed by the reaction.  I thought that was a perfect metaphor for the work we do– encouraging change in others.

As we end 2012, I’m realizing that the metaphor is incomplete.

Indeed we catalyze change, so that part of the metaphor works well enough.  However, I myself am often transformed by my interactions with you– my clients and colleagues.

Here are three lessons I learned from you in 2012:

Transformational work is spiritual work. Transformational work that ignores this fact will have a short shelf life.  Leaders are often encouraged to focus on modifying behaviors in order to get better results.  We build incentives (and disincentives) to help reinforce desired behaviors.  But this approach only lasts as long as we can maintain the incentive system.  Once we no longer have the energy (or desire) to maintain it, old habits reappear and hard-won ground is lost.  Sustainable transformations require shifts on the inside, because what’s inside us finds a way out.  For many personal changes, healing and growth are the only way forward.  Many of you have pursued true transformation this year, and you and your organizations are reaping the benefits.

A victim mentality provides fertile soil for self-deception. For some reason, I personally experienced more relational conflict in 3 months during the Fall of 2012 than I had in the previous 3 years combined.  In several of these conflicts, it was easy for me to feel victimized.  When I slipped into this role, it was easy for me to overlook or ignore my part in creating or perpetuating the conflict.  I’ve had numerous clients experience the same dynamic this year.  The best way out of this trap is to acknowledge our own mistakes and courageously pursue reconciliation.

Building teams is hard work. This summer Christin Nevins joined the Catalyst OC team.  I’m thrilled to have her on board, as she brings experiences, perspectives, and personality traits that are highly beneficial to our clients.  Although I often lead ad hoc teams of consultants, this is the first time I’ve had a direct report in years.  Christin challenges the status quo I’ve created, forces me to clarify how and why we do things, and demands meaningful work and growth opportunities.  All this requires my time and energy, and it uses muscles that have atrophied a bit.  But, as you know, it’s worth it.  You have encouraged and inspired me, by passionately leading others through adversity in pursuit of your own visions.

I’m grateful for you, Catalyst OC’s clients, colleagues, and friends.  You continually challenge me to improve my craft and do my best.  I consider this work a sacred calling, and I’m honored that you not only allow yourselves to be transformed through our work, but that you transform me, too.

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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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XYZ Sandwich

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Thanks to my good friend Kris Taylor from K. Taylor & Associates for hosting me as a guest on her site.  You can read my post on The XYZ Sandwich there.

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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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