Posts Tagged ‘humility’

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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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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Humble Pie

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I recall a conversation with my uncle, an entrepreneur who dabbled in all sorts of ventures, including buying and selling rare and high-value cars for individuals. I was a recently-graduated (I would say, “freshly-minted” but that is so 1997) MBA, eager to show off some of my new learning. My uncle had never gone to college, and I had just earned my third degree. I said, “Hey, I know quite a bit about stock portfolio management. If you ever want to talk about that, let me know, and I’ll be happy to share what I know with you.”

He smiled, obviously amused, and responded,

“Chip, you want my advice? Buy low, sell high.”

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