Posts Tagged ‘leadership’


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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Why Accountability Backfired

Friday, October 10th, 2014

In the last post (When Accountability Backfires) I asked,

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

Thank you for your insightful comments to that post. I love this tribe of savvy and sharp thinkers. You are an amazing community, and I’m grateful.

Here is my summary of the theories you all have offered:

  • A person was holding me accountable, not a computer. [Heather, Pawel, Jeff]
  • I value one outcome more than the other. [Josh, Kirk, Terry, Anya]
  • I value my relationship with Kim. [Heather, Josh, Brad, Terry, Anya, Dan, Keith, Brett, Kirk, Angie, Jeff]
  • Intrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Kevin]
  • Extrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Pawel]
  • A harsh or unfair penalty generates resentment.  [Julie, Brad]
  • A streak isn’t the same as progress. [Julie]
  • Misaligned values (or a shift in values over time) drive noncompliance. [Victoria]
  • Perceptions about others’ motivations/intentions drive behavior.  [Sarah]
  • Easier goals are more likely to get done. [Angie]

As promised, here are a couple more offerings from me, that weave together some of your theories:

Theory #1: When one is not fully bought in to the value of a new behavior, it is hard to continue in the face of failures or setbacks.

For example, if you’re not excited about exercising, it is harder to get back into a routine, once you’ve slipped. It takes extra energy and motivation to re-generate momentum.

With the post-it note, I think over time I had become more intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. Extrinsic accountability is a great way to kick-start a change. My answerability to someone else promoted a new and desirable behavior. Then there was a tipping point. Once I felt confident and competent in my new behaviors, external accountability was no longer required. In the case of the Great DuoLingo Rebellion of 2014, however, I never was fully bought-in to the idea that I needed to practice every day. DuoLingo is a hard master, insisting on daily obedience. When my streak was over, I was forced to evaluate if I wanted to keep slogging on, daily. I quickly (though not necessarily consciously) calculated it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Theory #2 (and this may be closest to the heart of the matter): The strength of the relational connection correlates to the sustainability of the new behavior.  

Kim was the individual holding me accountable for the office lights. I value Kim, our relationship, and her opinion of me. I don’t know Luis von Ahn or anyone else at Duolingo, and I don’t care what they think of me. Even after I rebelled against Kim’s accountability mechanism (the post-it note), I remain committed to being a better man, for her.

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When Accountability Backfires

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

I used to forget to turn off the lights in my office. When my wife Kim noticed, she turned them off for me.

One day she got tired of this routine and stuck a post-it note on the light switch to remind me to flip it off when leaving. It started off as a joke, including a tally of how many times she had to deliver her “lights off service.” It was very effective, until I ripped it off the wall in frustration.

One day, after two months of success, I got two tic marks from Kim back-to-back. I had a surprisingly strong emotional reaction to this. I angrily pulled the post-it off the wall, crumpled it, and pitched it in the trash.

I’m not completely incorrigible, though. I still turn the lights off, even without the post-it reminder.

I’ll come back to this point.

A second story, related to the first…

I used to rave about the smartphone app DuoLingo, which helped me hone my French and Spanish skills. The app is gamified, so users get points for regular use and language proficiency. I had worked my way up to a 46-day streak of achievements. Then, on day 48, at 12:01am, I received a sad-trombone message notifying me that my streak had come to an end. I had accidentally slipped up and missed a day.

My attitude towards DuoLingo soured.  That was 3 months ago, and I haven’t opened the app since.

The common theme in these two stories is that after some initial sustained compliance, I actively rebelled against the accountability.

Why? I have a theory:

Self-deception, when exposed, triggers defensiveness.

I thought I would perform well against both these assignments. Turn off the lights? Easy. Do some language homework on my phone each night? Piece of cake. It turns out I was fooling myself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my thinking went something like this: “I can submit to this. Success will affirm my ego. I’ll play along.” In both cases, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I thought I didn’t really need the accountability, until I did. I was play-acting submission to the accountability.

Failing at these tasks revealed the truth—I needed some outside help to keep me on track. I got resentful when my self-deception was exposed.

This is useful for me to understand, both as an individual who needs to be held accountable (to be alert to my own play-acting) and also as a leader who holds others accountable (to help others identify and deal with their own self-deception).

[Josh Davis, thanks for your insight into this dynamic.]

The difference between the two stories is that I continued with the desired behavior in one, but stopped cold turkey in the other.   Why?  On this one, I confess I’m a little stuck.

I have a handful of theories, none of which seem to fully explain my behavior. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. But before I reveal my ideas, I’d like to hear some more opinions. Perhaps you have an insight into this question that has been nagging at me:

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

I’d love to hear your theories.  Fire away, and I’ll post some more of my thinking later.


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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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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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