This year’s Oscars and the Best Picture mix-up gave me the perfect excuse to explore one of my favourite topics – how humans make mistakes and why we so often, fail to prevent them.

As everyone not currently living in a jungle without access to electronic media knows, the wrong movie was announced for best picture because the wrong envelope was given to presenter Warren Beatty.

It seems so simple – a distracted PwC representative (and who wouldn’t be in that environment) hands the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. Simple human error, right? Shoot the perpetrator and move on… Yes and no.

When something like this happens, the media (and many of us) howl for someone’s head because – we collectively wonder – “How could they stuff up so badly?”

The more spectacular the mistake, the more vengeance that is demanded and despite living in the Internet age and considering ourselves socially evolved, many still want blood in some form when someone makes a mistake, commits a crime or causes an accident. (Just listen to the fans at a sports event when the umpire gets a decision wrong!)

The urge to punish, harks back to the beginning of human history and is demonstrated by the masses that until relatively recently in our history, would come out to witness witch burnings, beheadings or hangings, regardless of whether the ‘guilty’ person was in fact guilty.

The problem is that while vengeance or punishment might be satisfying and can have a damping effect on the intentional violation of rules, (although if it was really effective we would have no-one in prison) it is entirely ineffective in preventing mistakes.

Mistakes are a normal result of the limitations of human cognition. We all make mistakes. Mistakes come in many forms but essentially, are an unintended outcome from a specific action.

So can we prevent mistakes? No – and anyone who tells you otherwise, does not understand human cognitive limits and the behaviour that can follow.

It is quite simply impossible to create a mistake-free world, but we can do a pretty good job of preventing mistakes from having a negative outcome, by creating systems and processes that trap them. It is in this that PwC seems to have failed spectacularly. How?

For convenience, they had a system of duplicate envelopes with the details of the winners in each category and this allowed presenters to enter from different sides of the stage, presumably to make the flow on and off stage, more efficient.

However, this was such an obvious opportunity for error to creep in, it should have been held in check by a protective system – perhaps something as simple as disposal of the spare envelopes, following the announcement of each category. Had this happened, no amount of distraction would have caused the eventual chaos and embarrassment that occurred, and the PwC representatives would not have to be in hiding…

So, as we slowly put down the flaming torches and pitchforks, it might be helpful to work out where the human error sequence actually began. After all, this is the only way to prevent the same thing from happening again.

In reality there were numerous places where this error might have been trapped and embarrassment avoided – beginning with the design of the process for handing out the envelopes, the lack of a 2-person verification system as each category approached and finally the lack of an envelope disposal system, as each category was announced.

The person handing the envelopes to the presenter, was simply the last domino to fall. Laying all the blame at the feet of the PwC person handing out the cards may be convenient but will not solve the problem of a re-occurrence. The system needs to be changed.

This is where cries of derision usually erupt, objecting to ‘blaming the system’ for our own faults and yet this is an approach that can dramatically reduce mistakes which create negative outcomes and in fact, has transformed safety in many industries, beginning with aviation, which has become the safest form of transportation ever devised.

In aviation safety, the concept of ‘pilot error’ was retired long ago (although the media doggedly hangs onto it for effect) and instead, the entire environment in which mistakes occur is scrutinised, sometimes beginning as far back as the design of the aircraft. Aviation leads the world in the understanding of what we call Human Factors – the cognitive and behavioural weaknesses in humans, that lead to mistakes and in creating systems that trap errors before they cause harm. We proceed with the absolute certainty that humans are incredibly creative and will, inadvertently, find a way around whatever error prevention process we put in place, so we diligently work to create layered defences of processes, actions, double checks and warnings that keep us all safe in the air. Importantly, pilots and engineers are usually not punished for mistakes (as distinct from intentional violations) and are encouraged to self-report errors so that lessons can be learned.

How effective is this approach to preventing negative outcomes from mistakes?

In 2015 3.2 Billion people flew on the world’s airlines yet there was not a single loss of a jet airliner and no resulting deaths. In the same period 1.2 million people died on the world’s roads. That’s quite a contrast…

So next time you are tempted to unload on your favourite error-prone employee, ask yourself, “How much of this do I (or the organisation) own?” Then set about examining the whole picture, not just the hapless individual in your cross-hairs.

One of the more common phrases I have heard from managers struggling with what appears to be a failing employee, is “I will just have to manage them out.”

This idea has always puzzled me. What they are effectively saying is that they will have to go through the required steps of ‘performance management’ in order to get rid of this person. In other words, the decision is made, so now we just have to build a paper trail and get rid of them without getting into trouble.

With this singular change of mindset, we have moved from using coaching as a tool to gain improvement, to a hollow sham, required to terminate someone’s employment without getting sued.

By necessity this involves deception, as the employee thinks they are getting help when in fact the leader is just ‘going through the motions’ towards a predetermined outcome. I have never understood how any business can justify this kind of behaviour and still claim to have a good leadership culture. It is utter nonsense and also completely unnecessary.

Over the years, when I have been asked to coach a manager struggling with this process, I have usually found that the reason they are stressed is that they know they have not offered the employee the kind of coaching or mentoring that they should have. Maybe they don’t have the skills or just haven’t prioritised it highly enough but now the pressure is on and they don’t know what to do.

I usually begin the session with a series of diagnostic questions. So Allison, let’s start with the records of their training, the coaching you have done, their probationary reports and annual reviews and see what we have.”

Awkward silence usually follows.

“Ahh, I think I have some diary notes somewhere.” Shuffle, shuffle. More silence”

And don’t think this only happens with small businesses. I have sat across the table from HR Directors at very large companies, asking the same questions, asking them to show me evidence of what policies applied and what was done to help the employee only to have the same result. Even large companies with outwardly good reputations and ‘values’ (brands you would know) struggle to have any kind of consistency in how they deal with their people.

Companies that use robust recruiting methods (behavioural profiling, job profiling and properly trained interviewers) start off on the right track but it has to be followed up. During the probation period which us usually 6 months, the ‘new hire’ needs regular coaching sessions with their leader to ensure they are on the right track and have all the support they need.

In Australia, a Learner Driver needs 100 hours of active mentoring in varied road conditions before being given a licence and even then, has restrictions on them for years afterwards yet some companies are happy to hand over a job to someone after a tour of the office and the tea room. Training will be offered if the job has a technical element but often it is just a case of ‘get on with the job’ and opportunities to shape the performance of the new person are lost. Importantly they are often left to interpret the workplace culture without any help, so it’s no wonder many struggle through their first year…

In most cases if the leader carries out effective and thorough probation coaching and mentoring, it will be clear if the person is not suited to the job, long before the company ‘owns’ them. It will also be clear to the employee and they may leave of their own accord, which is as it should be.

Effective leadership and coaching can also catch problems long before they become serious enough to consider ‘managing someone out. Most problems can be corrected and can even be prevented if we ask ourselves as leaders, “Could anyone else have made the same mistake or had the same problem?”  If the answer is yes, then we have a ‘system problem’ not an employee one and getting rid of this person won’t make any difference.

In any case, prevention is the always best option and that starts with effective leadership and coaching from Day 1, not just when the calendar pings and tells you it’s time for their annual review. (If you have to think about what to write at annual review time, it means you haven’t been paying attention.)

However, if you get to the point that you have offered the employee all the help and assistance there is available, have documented your efforts and their commitment to improve and their performance is still not satisfactory, you might find that again, they leave voluntarily but if not, you can let them go, knowing you have done everything you can.

As a bonus the steps you have gone through to help them, also take care of your obligations to offer assistance and support.

Importantly, your other employees will see this and know you are a person of integrity and that can only be good…

 

This well-known saying often attributed to French lawyer and politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, highlights the balancing act required of politicians in our society but the behaviour of some, begs the question;

Are they truly our representatives or do they dance to their own tune?

In a representative democracy, politicians are sent to parliament or congress to put forward the views and aspirations of the people who elected them but once there, they must make laws for all citizens and there is where the problems can begin.

In most countries, elections are only held every 3-4 years so there is an inevitable lag between voter intent and political action, yet in the 21st century, the mood of the public has never been more evident to those in power. There are polls almost daily that seek to take the temperature of the electorate and these have shown that in most Western nations, the broader public has consistently proven to be ahead of governments on key social and even geopolitical issues, so why it is that more than a few elected representatives seem to be actively pulling in the opposite direction?

The 2016 election ‘circus’ in the US was ample evidence of this phenomenon with some candidates putting enormous effort in to being as far from the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. rational thinking) as possible but it is also apparent in Australia at present, where polls indicate that an important civil rights issue due to be put before a national referendum will pass with a significant majority, yet a number of politicians have already announced they will vote against the proposal, even if the nation votes in favour of it.

In a country where voting is compulsory and participation is close to 100%, the intent of the people is rarely in doubt, so how does their personal agenda even warrant a mention?

Notwithstanding that post the next election these folks will likely be unemployed,  there is in their behaviour, a cautionary note for us all. The GFC has painfully brought home the lesson that when people are entrusted with our money or granted authority over us, we must actively take an interest in what they are doing and saying and if they seem to be acting in their own interests rather than ours, we must hold them accountable.

As the old Russian proverb goes: “Trust but verify”. To do otherwise is asking for trouble.

The message for leaders? Staying in touch with your customers and your people is critical. If you are not paying attention they may change direction and you will be left running after them, trying to figure out what went wrong…

 

Carrying out a ‘performance management’ (I prefer performance improvement) discussion can be one of the most challenging tasks a leader can undertake.

Many leaders avoid these altogether or try to palm them off onto HR.Some wait until the pain of non-performance is so great that it exceeds the discomfort of having the discussion.

The truth it that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Really…

So how can you reduce the discomfort?

Well first, let me repeat my suggested NAKED LEADERSHIP problem solving mantra:

When despite your best efforts, something goes wrong and someone screws up, the first question you need to ask is

“How much of this do I own?”

That’s right – you, the company and anyone with a degree of influence over what has gone wrong.

You must with excruciating fairness, thoroughly explore the procedures and processes, including recruitment and selection, the communication, timely feedback, measurement, coaching and training (all documented of course!) and anything else that you have a responsibility to provide, to see if it has gone awry.

If you don’t bother and you eventually fire the employee, anything missing in the above can be cause for an unfair dismissal case.

More importantly, this process can help identify if someone else is likely to have the same problem. if that is possible, then you have a system problem more than an employee one and ‘shooting’ this person is not going to change that.

If after reviewing these key areas, you come to the conclusion that you have done as much as you can to help your team member onto the right path and they are not performing, you need to find out why and that means a coaching meeting.

Now a key point: Never, Never get emotionally involved in the issue. It may affect you and even your own KPIs but it is essential that you ‘park’ this and that it remains an objective discussion about the problem not the person.

You must play the role of an Umpire and a Coach.

  • In any performance meeting your job is to gather as many available facts and evidence as you can and then treat it like a mystery or a puzzle: The mystery is: Why is this employee not performing as required?

This is an entirely different approach to going in and telling them to pick up their game or else!

If you attack they will fight back, or dodge the issue or cry or call the union or HR. That’s Humans 101.

Remaining calm and impartial can help people accept responsibility to self correct.

It is crucial that you ask ‘open’ questions and let them do most of the talking. This can be as simple as sitting down and factually laying out the areas of concern. Avoid any emotional statements or accusations.

Use neutral questioning language such as: “Jeff I wanted to talk to you because I have noticed that your last three reports have been submitted at least two days late and contained a number of errors (place the reports on the table for him to review) . I have looked over the performance requirements of your role and your training in this area (place these on the table for him as well) . Can you have a look and help me understand how this has come about?”

Do not speak again until he does. Allow as much time as it takes.The silence is a tool – avoid filling it with personal justification for talking to him. In other words Shut up…

Your whole purpose is to provide information and then have Jeff measure himself against his job description, work requirements and any instructions you have given him.

When he comments he may simply accept responsibility or may try to make excuses. Either way you need to ask him if there is any specific reason why this is happening. Remember we are trying to determine the cause, not pin the blame.

  • Avoiding unnecessary criticism or visible annoyance (including tone of voice) can get much better results.
  • Remember you are not doing anything to Jeff. You are simply holding him responsible for the work for which he is being paid.
  • It may take some practice to remain detached but it makes it a better process for everyone. The employee doesn’t feel like a naughty child and you don’t feel like an angry parent.

If you get emotionally involved, you are as the old saying goes “Making a Monkey for your own back”. Getting emotionally involved can cause you to say things that you will regret or be perceived as unprofessional or hostile. Not a good look.

After he has clearly seen the contrast between what is required and what he has been doing, ask:

“So Jeff, as I have pointed out, your work is important to our team and I really need to be able to rely on you. Can you tell me how you plan to get back on track?”

Get specifics and a commitment within a time frame that works for you.(You must allow a reasonable time to correct performance). You also need to offer any reasonable support to help him. That is not only a requirement under most workplace laws it is good business. replacing employees is expensive!

Remember it is not your job to do Jeff’s job, it is his.

You simply need to provide him with necessary resources and support so he can perform. If he consistently fails to perform you simply repeat the process but let him know that this cannot continue happening.

I have found this approach usually identifies problems and in the vast majority of cases, the employee accepts responsibility and self corrects. Most people want to do a good job but they also need to have an Umpire and Coach to keep them on track.

Playing this role is a lot less stressful than playing judge and executioner.

Remember a coach can still ‘bench’ or replace a player if necessary.

A friend of mine has a coffee cup which displays the pithy caption “I see Dumb people”- a lovely play on The Sixth Sense but seemingly, more and more appropriate if we pay attention to the conversation in some parts of the media and public discourse.

The impulse to contribute our ‘two cents worth’ is intrinsic in all humans and I suspect that I am not the only person shaking my head at the incredibly ill-informed things that some people say. Still there is hope in that the more well-travelled, better educated or widely read (and I might say many of the younger people today) have an improved sense of the world not being binary in a way that contrasts the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality held by some, yet it is often these black/white, us/them people who have the loudest voices and manage to play on fear to convince people that what they are saying is the ‘truth’.

The world and the 7 billion or so if us who share it make a complex and changing mix and if we are to navigate the human jungle in a productive way, it is more important than ever to be well-informed and open-minded.

Perhaps it is fear of this change that has caused some people to retreat into fixed positions regardless of the mountain of evidence that shows their approach to be untenable and unsustainable. The world is passing them by and they don’t know how to respond.

The enormous amount of information available on the World Wide Web has both improved and worsened this phenomenon.

There is an enormous benefit in the democratisation of information. The wealth of knowledge of generations, is available at a click of a button but so is every nutter conspiracy theory ever devised and anyone adept at using clever web-based software can make it harder to distinguish between the two.

We can now indulge our natural human tendency for pattern matching to find ‘evidence’ that supports our beliefs no matter how irrational.

It is not necessary for me to offer a comprehensive list of the thoroughly debunked beliefs that some people cling to, regardless of the mountain of proof to the contrary staring them in the face. We all believe what we believe because we are constructing the world we perceive in our head as we go along.

Our perception is never reality. It is our version of reality.

In the world there are established facts. There are things that are researched, repeatable, demonstrable and reliable. Then there are theories. People often confuse a Theory with a Hypothesis. A Hypothesis is a guess as to a cause. A Theory is an explanation that has come from testing a hypothesis. Theories are supported by evidence and are refined and improved upon until they have sufficient evidence to be accepted as the explanation for something.

Science is a great example of a process where the accepted ideas are never safe from challenge. It is built on peer review which consists of every other scientist in your field trying to shoot down your theory. If it is survives peer review it is considered reliable but it always remains subject to challenge.

Perhaps our opinions should be subject to the same process. Even more so with the media from where many develop their own opinions.

In years gone by, newspapers and TV News had real journalists fact-checking their stories and opinions were confined to the Editorial Section or clearly labelled as Opinion pieces. This surge towards News as a ‘retail product’ rather than a public service has seen a whole industry of ‘Fact Check’ organisations emerge for the express purpose of verifying or debunking “News” stories.

Perhaps we need specific consumer labelling laws applied to News organisations where Newspapers and nightly News shows must display clear disclaimers stating “Assembled from local and imported opinions. May contain traces of Fact”

Facts matter. Reason matters. Intelligent debate matters. It is what has brought us from the plains of Africa to the modern world.

Just like a Hypothesis, a belief or opinion is a place to start not a position to hold against all odds.

When confronted by an opinion with clear faults, you can choose to ignore it or if you feel the need to engage, use a questioning approach like: “That is interesting – what report/statistics/research is that based on?” and “Do you think that is always true?” or “The last time you were there is that how you found the people?”

Unfounded opinions usually melt in the glare of a question asking for verification.

Emotion blinds logic and rationality. The trend towards conspiracy theories and ‘denialism’* in some quarters is evidence of this.

So what has this to do with leadership and the working world?

Well as leaders it is crucial for us to be objective and to not allow our emotions to interfere with our judgement – particularly with regard to employees and to recognise that the stronger we feel emotionally about something, the more we should investigate and critique our own opinions before we speak or act.

If we are to be credible as leaders and fair to our people (which is a fundamental necessity to ensure their support) we have to work diligently to ensure that what we say is based on the most accurate information available and where new information becomes available, to present it honestly and when appropriate adjust our course.

In every performance management case where I have advocated for an employee, the Management has failed to be objective, know their own policies and procedures, had decided the outcome before commencing the investigation (and before meeting with the employee) and did not look at how their own behaviour, culture, practices and policies contributed to the employee error or behaviour.

In each case the Management had to overturn its decision and in some cases reinstate and/or pay compensation to the employee.

Completely unnecessary and just plain dumb.

A pause to reflect or research is always preferable to a self-inflicted mouthpocalypse…

DB

*If you are interested in the Denialism phenomenon, I highly recommend two books:

Denialism by Michael Specter http://www.amazon.com/Denialism-Irrational-Thinking-Planet-Threatens/dp/0143118315/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421624470&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=denuialism+michael+specter

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore http://www.amazon.com/Assault-Reason-Al-Gore/dp/0143113623/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421624515&sr=8-1&keywords=the+assault+on+reason&pebp=1421624527824&peasin=143113623 )

Over the years in blogs, workshops and talks, I have explored the art of being wrong and why it is so healthy. It seems it is time yet again, to shine a light on the rightness of our wrongness.

It is a fact that progress, such as humans have made it – has been ever driven not by being right but by being wrong, recognising it and adjusting our trajectory.

In centuries past, few people had access to information at all and those that did often used it as political or religious tool to exert control over the masses.(Whether the information was correct is another story.)

We all like to think we are well informed and not prone to outdated or erroneous thinking, so when I say emphatically that being wrong is healthy, people often look at me like I’m a little bit odd.

It has taken the whole of human history to arrive at a point where we can instantly compare our world view to known facts and correct ourselves but for some people it has also provided the capability to be convincingly wrong by searching the Web and finding legions of others who believe in the same nonsense.

The Internet has at once, provided source knowledge to the seeker and validation to the vacuous. For the latter, ‘Groupthink’ has become their new ‘happy place’.

Some time ago I was watching one of my favourite satirical news shows “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” where he was featuring a book called ‘Wiser’ and interviewing the author Cass Sunstein.

Stewart has a knack for dissecting US and World news and often eviscerating, with humour, disingenuous politicians and public figures usually by showing clips of them exhibiting self-serving and intellectually bankrupt behaviour by changing their political positions and ‘heartfelt beliefs’ for personal gain.

Mind you, I am not talking about gaining new information, realising you are wrong and changing your mind, rather it is when position change is adopted as a form of cynical manipulation, in order to take advantage of the brief nature of public memory.

In ‘Wiser – Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter’ Sunstein explores the influence of our personal networks on how we see the world and what struck me was not any startling new insight but rather the stunningly unsurprising conclusions researchers have reached about human behaviour and how we form or change our opinions.

The research he quotes, found that in a group with diverse opinions, the overall mentality and range of opinions will be moderated to a more centrist approach but when people are separated into like-minded groups they tend to veer fairly rapidly towards the extreme version of their belief systems.

If you tend to conservative thinking you will become more so and vice versa.

So is it “Well done Captain Obvious?” Not so fast.

Radical mobs and witch hunters have been demonstrating this behaviour for centuries but in the modern age, it is somewhat surprising to see it still so entrenched.

It seems that having more information available to us, particularly via the Internet has for some people, not made them more able to evaluate the validity of their own opinions by seeking reliable facts but rather able to seek out people who agree with them in order to make them more comfortable in a world that may be at odds with their current reality.

People can find any amount of seemingly credible information to support their views and this can lead to unnecessary arguments.

Standing on either side of a wall lobbing epithets or bombs at each-other is a stupid and fundamentally unproductive way of finding solutions to problems, be they industrial, social or political.

Negotiation and compromise or bargaining is the only way to gain long term benefit for the population at large because the vast majority of us have everything in common and live at the centre of the political spectrum not the fringes.

There is value in understanding the arguments of both sides of political, industrial and economic debates but this can only be found if we take the first step by realising that our current belief systems may not be correct or well-informed enough.

The irony of some extreme viewpoints is that they are terrified of evidence-based science and solidly established facts and often imagine vast conspiracies of evil (but oddly relatively poorly-paid) scientists coordinating vast disinformation campaigns to enslave ‘the people’ (how is unclear) yet Science is one of the only areas of human endeavour where people MAKE their careers and reputations by finding evidence to prove that the current position is incorrect.

They actually earn Degrees in Debunking! This is called The Scientific Method and relies on demonstrable evidence – not personal beliefs.

Any new theory has to make it through a Peer Review process where other scientists do their very best to destroy it by finding conflicting evidence or flaws in the process but if after this intellectual feeding frenzy has run its course the evidence still stacks up, it becomes the new factual basis for the next stage of research.

The key is that ‘opinions’ or ‘interpretations’ don’t cut it.

In science a cornerstone belief system can be shattered with a single new discovery and the scientific community picks itself up, dusts itself off and moves on to using this new information to expand our knowledge.

Scientists have to be prepared to be wrong. Very publically wrong – their theories, published papers and books debunked and yet take the new information, suck it up and keep going.

If only the rest of us could be so enlightened.

Unfortunately, the self-perpetuating ‘Groupthink’ that Sunstein describes in ‘Wiser’ seems to be much more pervasive than we may realise.

Pavlovian headlines shout for us all to act as one – that is to suspend critical thinking and act with our hearts and not our heads.

Instead when we feel instinctively emotional about an event, this visceral stab into the core of our emotions should be a warning sign to us to take a breath and investigate – not to swallow whole the hype. The more it hurts the more we should wait and think and investigate.

When the truth comes out, we then need to evaluate it against our previously held position and learn from any discrepancy. If it requires changing our opinions or correcting our statements, then so be it. It is a mark of integrity to say “I was wrong’ and a mark of cowardice to remain silent or cling to an untenable position..

If leaders do not have the courage to change their opinions based on new evidence, then our society is in real danger but here’s the rub – we as thinking people, must allow them to room to make corrections without being pilloried.

Remember, it took until 1992 (382 years) for the Catholic Church to admit that Galileo was right because it was fearful of diminishing its authority by showing it was fallible…

Any time an institution, society or individual seeks to preserve its power, wealth or position rather than acknowledging it is in error, it begins a process of dishonesty and corruption that will end in its downfall.

Interestingly, when we have the courage to re-evaluate our beliefs, no matter how strongly held, based on new information we become stronger not weaker.

So what do we do when we encounter people advocating clearly erroneous thinking?

I mean, haven’t we all been told that we have to respect other people’s beliefs?

Well that is part of the problem.We do not have to, nor should we – respect other people beliefs. Beliefs are not facts.

There are people out there who believe they are doing ‘Gods work’ by murdering others and I certainly do not respect their beliefs. They are clearly insane.

Rather, in a democratic society we must respect the right of all citizens to hold whatever beliefs they choose because this is a fundamental feature of free speech and freedom of expression but it does not protect them from critique. In fact challenging beliefs is the basis for democracy.

When we encounter people peddling what is clearly nonsense the best thing to do is play Socrates and ask lots of questions like: What evidence do you have to support that? or “Who told you that was true? and “Who told them?” Or ‘Did you know that the evidence shows that to be incorrect?”

As thoughtful members of society, parents, employees and humans, we must be willing to calmly challenge our own beliefs and those of others as new information becomes available. It is the only path to progress, peace and stability.

In an age where we can instantly compare our current beliefs against an enormity of reliable research and factual rational sources, there is no excuse not to prove ourselves wrong on a regular basis.

After all, how many adults still believe in Santa Clause?

DB…

Anyone who has been involved in a serious change project knows the challenges this can involve. (If you really want to step into the fire, try doing change management as a profession!)

I have had the interesting experience of carrying out or consulting on, a number of change projects and it seems to me, they fall into two distinct categories:

  • Urgent change on which the survival of the company depends
  • Incremental change / transformation that is future-focussed.

Nothing surprising there, so which should be simpler to execute?

A reasonable person would assume that urgent change should be the easiest to get under way, yet it is often the most challenging to carry out successfully.

While this might be counter-intuitive (If the change is urgent shouldn’t it get everyone’s support?) there are stranger things at play.

Usually, by the time a company decides that it needs ‘urgent change’ to stave off catastrophe, the ‘denial delay’ has seen lots of time wasted and by now, things are very serious.

At this point many organisations bring in change management consultants or appoint an internal manager from another division to lead the change.

Logically, a fresh set of eyes and someone without any political investment/alliances/baggage can quickly see what needs to be done.

Serious company problems can result from a variety of factors such as:

  • The internal focus on innovation, customer service and value has been lost and market share has declined or;
  • External economic or competitive factors have emerged and the company must work much harder to retain customer loyalty and deliver quality, even in the face of price or cost pressures

If this is combined with a situation where the agility and focus that created the initial success has been left to atrophy during the ‘good times’, corporate inertia can make change almost impossible to generate quickly enough to save the organisation.

Many companies large and small, even previously dominant brands, have through poor leadership and management, succumbed to this disease and are no more. (how many can you name?)

So if you are confronted with an organisation that has suffered from years of complacency, accumulated fat and consequent employee lethargy, is there a place for organisational emergency surgery or should the victim be unplugged from life support?

No surprise if I (as a consultant) say there is usually a possibility of survival and growth but with a caveat:

You must determine as thoroughly as possible:

Is the patient willing- really willing, to do what it takes?

“Why wouldn’t they be?” Ahhh but there’s the rub. Human nature can be quite perverse.

One only needs to observe otherwise intelligent people who are clearly aware of the dire consequences of smoking (read death) but cannot summon the will and persistence to quit!

Rationalisation and denial (often in concert) are key hallmarks of human behaviour, so it is no surprise when the members of the management team, who by inaction or incompetence, have for years been complicit in driving the company towards a cliff (these things rarely happen quickly) see the leader (CEO/MD) get the chop and collectively breathe a sigh of relief, chanting in unison “We never agreed with his policies”.

Having survived the spill,they will then often appear to embrace the new leader/change-maker to show the senior leadership or the Board that they are all for the change, after all as Churchill once observed:  “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

However, when leader/change-maker begins to identify the causes of the problems and some of them point to existing managers, procedures and behaviours, the mood can quickly turn hostile and be demonstrated in passive-aggressive behaviour.  

Unsurprisingly, some managers are far too attached to the comfort of their positions to want to commit to change – even if the company is at stake.

Sometimes people will even turn on each-other or the change-maker because after all, if the change effort succeeds, then by definition, they were part of the problem and are likely next for the chop.

So before commencing any change project, several big questions need to be asked and answered:

  • Is the new CEO or senior leader willing to lead the change and be brave enough to withstand the resistance that comes with it?
  • If the new CEO has hired a change maker, are they willing to support this person or organisation, as they do what must be done?
  • Is there solid support from the Board or governing authority?

I have asked these very questions and been assured of full support only later to be disappointed, so I have developed a few rules to help in deciding whether to take on a change project:

Rule 1: 

If the change sponsors don’t have the courage for the task, you are better off walking away.

  • There is nothing worse than watching the ‘change champion/s’ turning to water when things get tough because as soon as the doubters smell wavering they will run for the ‘safety of inaction’ and the impetus for change visibly dissolves around you.

But let’s say that you and your change team are guaranteed full support to execute your mission; well there are some other things to consider:

Rule 2:

In order to create urgent change there must be a commitment to boldness of action and persistence of purpose. 

Things to consider:

1  Rapid change when needed, can work very effectively as long as the ‘Boss’ offers effective communication before and after the urgent tasks have been handled.

2  Virtually all change doctrines stress ‘bringing everyone along’ with the change but when things are desperate, there is often not enough time to massage egos and in the process, you can guarantee that you are going to hurt feelings and cause insecurity. 

3  People naturally resist change (organisational inertia) but in the heat of battle you can’t form a committee to discuss everyone’s feelings, you just have to get on with the job. (In an emergency, you won’t see pilots taking a passenger survey on what to do next )

4  Most will go along with urgent change if there is a compelling reason to do so and the new direction has been expressed unambiguously.

5  If you have been given the job (as a consultant or internal manager) and are leading the charge to save the company, the senior leader must commit to ‘covering your back’.

Rule 3

Don’t assume that initial successes mean that the need for change is over.

Change initiatives whether personal or corporate can suffer from ‘the antibiotic effect’.

  • In medicine, this is cause for enormous concern. When a patient on a course of Antibiotics begins to feel better, they often stop taking the medicine, assuming that it has done the job. The problem is that the drugs have only killed off the majority of weak bacteria and stopping the medicine means that the drug doesn’t have time to wipe out all of the more resistant bacteria and as a result, we create super bugs.
  • Because change is painful, everyone wants it to stop as soon as possible, so when leaders ‘chicken out’ and fail to persist in bringing about lasting change, the seeds of the original condition can remain and they often return to haunt us.

The company may appear to be healed only to lapse into disarray at the first stressor.

This is why some companies just seem to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Any kind of change takes a robust understanding of human nature and a strong dose of realism accompanied by courage and persistence, or it is doomed to failure.

Sometimes ‘slowly, slowly’ isn’t appropriate and there is no other option but bold action.

As WW1 British Prime Minister David Lloyd George once said (quoting an old maxim)

“There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.”

 

 

Hanging in our bathroom at home is a lovely framed Ken Duncan photograph that depicts a small wooden row-boat anchored in the still waters of a wide blue lake. The caption reads-“Silence is sometimes the best Answer’. I couldn’t agree more. (I have attached it below in case some of you are feeling stressed right now. Take a minute…breathe… and look at it…)

Recently, I have been participating in Linked-in conversation regarding how to deal with an ‘Insubordinate employee’ and as I was writing my response, that lovely image came to mind, so I offered some perspective to the group.

I thought it may be worth sharing this with my wider audience, in case it might be of use.

From the outset, the use of the term ‘Insubordinate’ irked me. It is an old military term and despite being ex-military myself, I find it smacks of oppressive thinking, low E.Q. and an inflexible mind.

I have not found very many situations where a leader using a Socratic investigative method has not been able to determine that there is far more to the situation than someone simply saying ‘No.’  The word ‘Insubordination’ has no place in the modern business world.

The simple truth is that ‘normal’ people do not usually get up one day, dress for work and say to themselves “Today-I am going to get myself fired.” There is always a reason.

For many years as a leader, performance management arbitrator, lecturer and consultant, I have consistently applied the methodology of Aviation Human Factors Investigation in dealing with performance issues.

So what has that got to do with dealing with ‘Sonia the Serial Stuff-up’?  Well, it has to do with the ‘Why’.

Quite often after an aircraft accident, you will hear the term; ‘pilot error’ bandied about by uneducated commentators but in reality, it is never used in aviation investigations because we know that situations almost never arise out of a single event and unless you address all of the causal factors, you are likely to see the same thing happen again. It is this kind of thinking that had made aviation the safest widespread technological endeavour in human history.

As leaders, we sometimes have too little objectivity and let our emotions get away from us. In Naked Leadership® I coined a term known as DIS-connecting. (No I didn’t invent the concept of disconnecting your toaster before sticking a knife in it to retrieve an errant muffin – that is natural selection at work!) 

The DIS is short for Dynamic Internalised Separation and the key is that it is Dynamic. You must actively take time to divorce your emotions from any comment you might make in tense situations. There is a complex cascading biochemical reaction that occurs when we are under stress (i.e. an employee telling us to do physically impossible things with ourselves) and it inhibits rational thinking for both the manager and the team member.

So best to sit down with your team member and ask them to start at the beginning and tell you everything.

Naked Clue #2′ is Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen” for a reason. It works… My favourite opener is to sit back and ask  

So Jenny-What’s up?

If they start babbling incoherently and defending their actions you can say: “Hang on a second – sit back and take a breath. No-one is getting shot today – I just want to find out what this is all about”.

It is amazing the relief you see on their faces and they then quite often feel obliged to be honest because you have treated them calmly and fairly. 

The more carefully crafted questions you ask and the longer you listen without speaking – the more you will find out. Any good detective or military interrogator knows this. In my case, even when I think they are finished speaking, I count to ten mentally, before saying anything. Usually the thoughtful silence will bring out more information. I repeat this until I can get to ten seconds without further comments and then I ask another open question related to the event.

If you are patient you will eventually find out what has caused this issue and then you can deal with the source of the problem, rather than chopping of the head of the person who happened to inadvertently bring it to you.

I have experienced very few situations where the person offering the inappropriate statement or action will not apologise at the end of the conversation and as a bonus; you have usually found that this situation affects more than one person, so you have an opportunity to benefit the whole department or company.

It takes much more time than shooting someone but the benefits far outweigh the costs…Image

In some organisations there seems to be a love-fest with saying things that mean nothing or using entirely the wrong words or phrases to describe what you want to do.

Add in the wide variety of corporate jargon and you can have a recipe for confusion and inaction.

Recently I saw an apt cartoon that read “Seriously, if I hear the word Strategic one more time I am going to hurl!”

I agree! What people misusing terms like this don’t realise, is the corporate cringe that accompanies it. (Slap forehead-Not again!)

Strategic is LONG term Structural planning, Tactical is SHORT term actionable. You don’t solve the problem of a photocopier out of paper by developing a team strategy… You just fix it…

Many years ago working in the US, I learned a game to play at management team meetings. (You may have a version you have used) each of the department managers would pick a several terms of jargon prior to the meeting and then as each one was used, it was subtly marked off the list. The first person to complete their list whispered ‘Bingo’.

It was a fun way to remain aware of ‘nothing’ words or phrases. Politicians are famous for speaking a lot and saying nothing but they are often left in the dust by corporate leaders.

I have, over the years, noted that the issuance of this kind of waffle has a direct relationship to distance from the front line – effectively the further from where the money is made, the more waffle. (I am thinking of calling it ‘Bentley’s theorem’)

Here are some gems I have heard in the past:

“Re-crystalising our objectives”:

Translation: What the hell do we do now?

 “Reinvigorating team synergy”:

Translation: “How do I stop you people fighting?”

 “Feedback is a gift”:                      

Translation: “I think your work is crap but I don’t have the moral courage to actually say that and then help you get better. By the way it’s not re-giftable so don’t you dare give any to me!“

And my favourite:

Paradigm shift: Defined by Urban Dictionary[1] as:

Has no real meaning, but people like to pretend it does.

E.g. “Now that I am the manager, we are going to experience a paradigm shift in the marketing department”

If you want to have fun in a meeting you can politely say: “I’m not really sure what that means – can you explain please?”

If they waffle again you can ask: “Can you help me with a way to explain that in plain language to my front-line people?”

This kind of language is often used to disguise the fact that the person speaking has no idea what to do or how to do it.

When questioned they will often say:

 ‘Let’s take this off-line and discuss after the meeting”

“Translation:  “I don’t know what it means, so I can’t explain it to you”

As a leader it is best to avoid any kind of jargon. If you can’t say it in plain language then don’t say it. You need you people to trust you so being straightforward, even if the news is bad, is the way to go.

While some good, in terms of behavioural awareness came out of the ‘self-help craze’, people who walk around spouting Guru talk are usually not acting on any of the principles they espouse or misunderstand them completely.

As the old saying goes-“Beware of the man on the street corner saying his prayers” because isn’t it funny how the most pious/conservative/rigid/judgemental people often turn out to be the most corrupt…

You don’t need to walk around using catch phrases, jargon, corporate affirmations or frothing company values.

People are smarter than you may think and you will get a reputation as someone to be ignored or parodied.

If you lead well and people trust you, they will absorb the company values (provided that they actually mean something and apply to everyone in their jobs).

Avoid talking about your philosophy or beliefs, instead incorporate them into your everyday behaviour.

That’s what being Naked is all about.

[1] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=paradigm+shift

I was on one of the many  People/Business/HR forums I monitor  and came across a post asking how to deal with ‘insubordinate employees’. What a loaded question!

How could a Naked Leader not respond to that! Here is my little rant.Enjoy!

“Firstly – define insubordinate…  Just the use of this terminology indicates that the leader’s ego is engaged and not in a good way.

Far too many leaders get precious about feedback. If your people cannot be open and honest with you-even blunt-you have failed already.

One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (but is actually much older than that): To paraphrase it- “No-one can insult you without your permission.”

If you are an effective, emotionally mature leader (or human) it will be almost impossible to be offended by anyone. The fact that you feel offended or see their behaviour as ‘insubordinate’ means that you have made the transaction about you – not the problem at hand.

Here’s a clue from Naked Leadership®: Leadership is not about you it is about them…

The term insubordinate means literally that you perceive that they are no longer ‘subordinate to you’ i.e. they have dared to address you as an equal. This smacks of insecurity and arrogance.

What I suggest to all of my clients and seminar attendees is that if one of your employees walks up to you and says: “You suck!” Or words to that effect, rather than getting all upset, you simply reply: ”Thanks for the feedback. Can you explain in exactly what way I suck?”

This has two immediate effects: it reflects back to the person what they have just said and disarms them because they are expecting a fight and it allows you to question them further to find out the source of their discontent. No normal person takes this kind of extreme (and almost certainly job threatening) action without a very good reason.

A good leader practices mental Aikido. They move out of the way of the attack and assess their adversary.

It has been my experience over quite a few decades as a leader and as a coach that if we engage the complainers rather than reacting to them, we might find that they are the only people willing to tell us the truth. I stress to my clients that they seek out what we here call the ‘whingers’ and find out what is bothering them. It is rarely without justification.

The aviation industry long ago learned to decrease as much as possible, the ‘power gradient’ between the Captain and the rest of the crew. A power gradient builds mistrust, fear of speaking up and creates an inability to determine a problem before is has negative effects. It can directly lead to accidents with catastrophic results.

A leader must have the ability to take all manner of feedback and dispassionately evaluate it. We have to be open to the idea that we can be wrong.

So the question is: If you are easily offended by employee comments-should you really be a leader? I would suggest that the answer is no.

If you take the time to Ask Questions and Shut up and Listen (Naked Clue #2)® you may find that there is key information in their discontent.

As a leader you have to be the Coach and the Umpire. You have to be emotionally Disconnected from any situation in order to make good judgements.

If people can trust you enough to be honest, even brutally so, you have an opportunity to fix whatever is wrong before it spreads the damage – in effect: to get out in front of the challenge and focus on prevention.

In other words… to Lead….