Leadership Feedback – Are you asking the wrong people?

product-reviewsWho is the best judge of quality when it comes to a service or product provider, the company selling or the customer? When you look for a product do you just look at the marketing information or do you look at consumer reviews? Do you look at 3rd party expert data? Smart consumers always look at all of it. But when it comes to evaluating talent (especially leadership ability), the typical approach is from the top down, which ignores all the consumer data.

I’ve facilitated a countless number of what most people would call “soft-skills” classes; you know, the people stuff (those soft, squishy, emotional people.) From topics like listening, communicating expectations, providing feedback, coaching, mentoring, conflict resolution, supervisory skills, etc. And more than once, I have had someone say in class that they are “a great [insert skill I am teaching here].” This especially bristles me when it comes to these interpersonal skills because ultimately, it’s not in your authority to judge how good you are – it is up to the other person. The only person who gets to evaluate me as a good listener is the person I am listening to. So why then is “leadership ability” evaluated by the people above them? Shouldn’t the people being led be the authorities on that? After all, if no one is willing to follow you, how can you (or your boss) call you a good leader. You may be a good employee, sure, but being a good leader is only substantiated by those who choose to follow.

Process Triangle

Now, I am not advocating for a complete 180 and have your employees dow you performance reviews entirely and if you want to get a more complete view of someone’s leadership, doesn’t it make sense to get data that speaks to that? This is the whole purpose behind a 360-style review process. If you want know how you are doing influencing and interacting with you senior leaders in the company, ask them. If you want to know how you are as a teammate and collaborative colleague, ask your peers. If you want to know how you are doing as a leader, ask the people you are charged to lead. In fact, when trying to determine your location on a map, the process of using three reference points is called triangulation.

And what if (here is something to think about) what if, your team got to choose their leader? Sure, the execs and bosses get a say in the final candidates but how powerful of a shift would it be to know that you are not only accountable to your boss in your effectiveness as a leader, but also the people you would be leading. How powerful would it be to know that your team voted you as their leader? We do it for public representation, why not for corporate representation as well? If you are constantly seeking feedback from your team then you probably know whether they would pick you or not…and if you are not getting feedback from your team, well, you probably know too.

159701686_winston-churchill-quote-9b-postcardsIt may not be perfect, but as Winston Churchill pointed out, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Help me understand how the modern corporate structure is unlike a political system? The purposes may seem different but in the end are we not servants to our customers? If you are a trying to be a leader, just who do you think your customers are? Doesn’t their voice matter?


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Dave Needham is a leadership coach, speaker, and President of PeakAlignment, Inc. He thrives on building awesome workplace cultures and leaders. Contact Dave Needham if you think your workplace could use more “awesome”.



Irony of Annual Performance Reviews

The workplace is wrought with contradictions – “we trust and empower you to make decisions, but make sure you send me updates every day to tell me what you are doing and bring your ideas to me to approve”; or, “productivity is really important so let’s have another 2 hour meeting about how we can be more productive”; or, “we really appreciate internal talent and promote from within but I’m afraid you don’t have the outside experience we are looking for to promote you to the next level.”  All frustrating no doubt. But one thing stands out as the bane of a manager’s year as well as a soul crushing experience for an employee – annual performance reviews.

Ugh. Everyone hates them. It is always something people “gear up for” as if they were headed into battle. And it is with that mindset that often sets the stage for conflict in a most unnatural and aggravating resolution-proof way. And what is the purpose of them? Depending on who you ask, you can get different answers. If you ask the employee, it’s to figure out how all their effort over the past year will be rationalized away into a sub-cost of living “performance” increase in their salary. If you ask the manager it is to help the employee develop and see areas for growth. If you ask HR it is to provide legal documentation of performance problems and “fairly” distribute the company-wide 2.6% payroll increase.  If you ask senior leadership, they may stare at you blankly and say “HR made me do it”. For most companies, it is considered a necessary evil.

Necessary evil? The CIA is a necessary evil, Guantanamo Bay was a necessary evil, Satan is a necessary evil. Annual performance reviews are just evil and there is nothing necessary about them.  I worked in an organization that was proof of that – I worked there for 4 years and NEVER saw a performance review, either one I needed to fill out, or one I had to receive.  And you know what? Everyone on that team was awesome and did awesome work. How did we distribute raises – we all got the same percentage raise. And it was not called a “merit” or “performance” increase, it was called exactly what it was – a salary adjustment.  And no one was unhappy about it or argued or plead for more – it was fair.

So why are they so ubiquitous? Because they are easy and there is no real accountability. Sure they take a long time, but the feedback is reduced to numbers or some other likert-scale rating of “meets expectations” And ultimately, they are a “review” a look backwards that does nothing to develop behaviors or talent to better performance.

Doing it differently

People are intrinsically motivated to get better, to be better at something. (Pink, 2011) We desire improvement and mastery. And it that single piece of research proven data that can shift how you improve performance. People want to do a good job, they want to meet expectations. Providing them with your expectations AFTER the year has wrapped up (the essence of an annual performance review) isn’t helping anyone. And letting them know they have not met them for a year is frustrating at best.

Set the expectations early

This is the key. And being clear about your expectations is tough, especially when it comes to making it behavioral. Giving people a list of qualities and traits that you expect puts a great deal of reliance on the assumption they share the same meaning of those words – and this is typically where things fall down. I’ve worked with hundreds of groups in different trainings to come up with a common meaning for “team player” and “passionate” and do you know how many times I have gotten exact matches across groups or classes? Zero. Everyone has their own small spin or one more things that they include in their definition.  The same goes for “hard worker”, “quality”, “attention to detail”, “organized”, and so on. The good thing about doing these exercises with groups is the lists are not that far off, there is typically about an 80% match. All you have to do it clarify the other 20%.

So setting behavioral expectations is not like talking with a 5-year-old about cleaning his/her room. Start by asking your employee (or manager for that matter) what “organized” looks like to them, then work off their meaning to add the 20% that you also expect. This activity may seem a little pedantic, but then again, so are performance reviews. And the likelihood of better performance is much greater once people know what you are looking for.

Don’t ignore the small misses

I’m not talking about mistakes, I am talking about the small departures from your expectations – where people “kind of” got the outcome you re looking for. Catching mistakes is about watching what people DO, I’m talking about what people PRODUCE. The outcome of their activity, the result. Mistakes happen, we all mess up, it is how we recover from those mistakes (or fail to) that matters. And where it matters is in the outcome. For instance, if you give me a task of tying a certain type of knot and you tell me I have 20 minutes to produce the end product, and after 20 minutes I have tied the knot successfully, does it matter how many times I tried and failed? Results matter.

That is why it is important to give feedback when the result is slightly off from your expectation. The judgement of the result is how we know whether or not we are doing well. THIS is the time for feedback, and not about their activity (please see above), about the result. What are you looking for that you did not see? Was this an error in your communication when you set expectations? If you did not set expectations, then take accountability for never telling them what you wanted – that is YOUR fault, not theirs. Start over in that case. If you had set expectations, maybe there were a couple of points you did not realize you were looking for until you saw the final product – again, YOUR fault, not theirs. Feedback is an opportunity to clarify expectations, not just point out mistakes.

And people want feedback. If you were doing something in your job that was holding your success back, would you want someone to tell you? Of course you would. Everyone wants feedback. It is HOW we manifest our desire to get better. If we do not know what we are doing well, we won’t continue it – if we do not know what we need to improve, we cannot change it. Change starts with awareness.

Done and Done.

That’s really it. Set expectations and give feedback. If you do those two things, performance reviews become superfluous. And what is more, if you write what you plan to discuss before hand, you now have documentation. Which is really all a performance review is, documentation that at some point in the year you gave feedback about someone’s performance. It is a way to force feedback into the system, that’s it. Regardless of how your company justifies it, performance reviews start for that reason alone – to provide documentation that feedback has been given. If you are giving feedback and documenting along the way, filling out a performance review just becomes paperwork…and hopefully, paperwork that goes away.

Why your leadership development efforts are not netting you more internal promotions…

Paradox Triangle

When perception creates a paradox

There are a number of paradoxes in the modern workplace but one that seems to plague a lot of organizations is leadership development and succession planning not leading to better internal talent or higher retention. And it befuddles HR professionals, senior executives, recruiters, and all employees.

A story (* = fictionalized…kinda)

Ryan* is a 28 yr old IT Jr. Project Specialist and has worked at Vector Resources* for 4 years. Starting as a departmental admin, Ryan proved her ability and moved into the coordinator role after 2 yrs. Since becoming a project coordinator, Ryan has received multiple recognitions from various stakeholders and completed a number of successful projects. She has also taken a few leadership courses and professional development courses as a part of her Individual Development Plan. Now Ryan is looking for her next career step which is to a Project Manager that would include up to two direct reports.  The regional office in New Mexico has an opening for exactly that position. Ryan has long-standing good relationships with the people she would be supervising and they are supportive of her promotion. Ryan’s direct manager feels Ryan would be great in her new role and has acted as an advocate for her promotion as well.

Sounds good, right? She’s got a great track record, recommendations from her boss, colleagues, and recognition from other stakeholders proving her ability to successfully lead projects. Additionally, she knows the company, already has established relationships, understands the strategic vision of Vector Resources, she’s willing to relocate at her own expense, and love’s the company. Seems like a no brainer.

But here is what happens. The position posts internally and Ryan goes through the process and everyone seems to like her…but rather than offer her the job, they decide to post it externally to get some comparisons. EVEN THOUGH SHE IS THE PERFECT CANDIDATE! And here is the kicker, the salary range they are targeting for an external is MORE than they would offer Ryan.

So here is where Ryan sits – capable, recommended, ready, internally knowledgable, and accepting of a lower than external market salary because she loves the company.  Yet, here is the message she is getting – external candidates are worth more AND might be more suitable for a role she is already doing. So regardless of the outcome, Ryan is starting to feel unappreciated leading to disengagement and cynicism towards a company she loved.  Not to mention, the time to fill this valuable position is just getting longer and longer with two direct reports having no manager.

Despite all the things going for her, Ryan is subject to two contributing factors that are roadblocks to internal promotions – her longevity in her position and a concept of internal equity.  Lets look at these individually because they are acting against internal promotions is different ways. One is leadership failure and the other is a cultural failure.

The Paradox of Longevity

Despite the high praise and desire for employee loyalty, it is harmful to your career progression. The culprit to this conundrum is a component of gestalt psychology known as “figure-ground.”  It is a concept of how we perceive things.

Faces or a vase?

Largely illustrated in visual form by optical illusions that show two or more objects depending on how you look at them, the concept of figure ground states that once something emerges from the background as a distinct image, it can no longer be unseen. So while you may see the vase first and then the profiles, you cannot “unsee” the vase.

Old woman or young woman?

How this works against an employee when it comes to longevity in a certain company, and more specifically in a certain position, is people sometimes have difficulty seeing someone as capable of doing something beyond their current position.

Take Ryan’s example, Ryan has been in a non-management role for an extended period of time and as such, the leaders around her (the hiring managers in particular), and unable to see her as a manager. In fact, she may even be told she is not qualified because she does not have management experience, which she will NEVER get in her current non-managerial role.

It is a Catch-22. You aren’t qualified to manage people until you manage people. And if she is not given the position for that reason, what leads her to believe she will ever attain her career goals at her current company. They are in fact sending a message that quitting is the only way for her to further her career.

Seemingly, some organizational leaders are more appreciative of the unknown potential with an external candidate, than with the known capabilities and internal knowledge of an internal candidate.  That is the leadership failure, failure to see your own employees’ potential.

The Cultural Issue

This one is more a fault of systems being designed independent of one another but it becomes a blind spot for many organizations. They pay internal candidates less than external hires. And while the basis of this might be rooted in good financial theory, the human message it sends is, internal experience is worth less than external experience.

The underlying principles at work on this one is from a financial standpoint this practice makes good fiscal sense. An internal will generally accept less for a promotion than an external might demand. But beyond the messages it sends to an internal here is something to consider. The reason an internal would take less is because there is less stress of learning a new organization. It is easier to stay with a company I know for less money, than have to re-establish myself and learn a new role at the same time. The inverse of that is where irony sits. For the external hire, they fully anticipate the stress of learning a new organization and establishing themselves. So in essence, you are paying MORE for someone to learn your organization before they can even bring benefit. You are paying MORE for an external hire’s learning curve before productivity kicks in.

There is also the concept of internal equity that many HR professionals cite saying they do not want to create an expectation of a high raise percentage for internals as they move up. But this tends to be a fallacious argument. It may make sense when it comes to performance or cost of living raises, but it should not apply when the nature of someone’s job changes in accordance to a promotion. The role is worth a certain range and adjusting it simply because someone is an internal candidate is creating a negative culture for internal promotions.

Ultimately, here is the message and culture this practice of basing salary on the internal status and current salary creates: quit and work somewhere else, then come back and we will not only be more eager to hire you, we will pay you more than if you had just been promoted. It encourages the exact thing you are working to prevent. And what is more, you have now taken a sincerely engaged employee and turned them into a cynical job-hopper.

Straighten Things Out

Much of what I encounter in organizational roadblocks to performance are a result of misalignment. Everyone to detours around the roadblock to continue moving forward. In this case, the roadblock is a misaligned compensation philosophy and leadership perception. The detour is exiting people out of your organization only to pay them more to come back.

A major argument I hear from many senior executives is “if we develop people into leaders, they just take that experience to another company.” To which I respond, if that happens more than 50% of the time then you are either not looking at your people with fresh eyes when it comes to potential promotions or your compensation philosophy tells them they would be worth more if they quit.

When leaders start bemoaning the talent shortage and worrying about leadership gaps (such as in this article from Inc.com) it is usually a good idea to start looking at your efforts. If you are not developing your talent, start. But make sure you look the environment you plan to grow them in. You might create great seedling leaders but if you don’t replant them when they need more room or water them as much they deserve…you could find your leadership crop dying off.

Training, Development, and Learning

In this time where talent is getting easier and harder to find (lots of people, hard to find the right ones – ie. the paradox of choice) the need for talent management continues to grow. However, something I see from many organizations and HR leaders is the confusion and the interchangeable use of the words “training”, “development”, and “learning”. One is an event, another is a strategic process, and the latter is an individual experience. Yet many senior level leaders continue to ask for training to answer their development problems…the fly by night training and instructional design contractors (and pretty much EVERY eLearning developer) is all to happy to provide training for a price. And after thousands and sometimes 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars of training design and expensive Learning Management Systems, organizational leaders are not seeing a direct return on their investment in terms of development. And it is killing the credibility of talent management professionals.

Training is like building a house – you start and you finish within a pretty narrow timeframe when you think about the larger span it takes to build a city.  Good training relies on a number of qualified people: contractors, architects, sub-contrators, etc. And if you do it right, it is a great addition to your company. But just as building a house does not create an entire community, training does not develop your pool of talent. It is a piece to the puzzle but it is not development. Development of talent is closer to the development of a community. It takes a greater vision to see how all the pieces fit together. You have the houses, sure, but you also want roads, common areas, sanitation, sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, and landscaping.

The “roads” of your organization is how people navigate. If your organization is clogged with politics (think narrow roads with too many cars), misaligned communication structures (roads to nowhere), or broken systems (potholes and ruts); you can’t channel talent and effort in the right direction. People either get lost, frustrated, or just stop. Either way, if the pathways for people to develop are hard to navigate (just like a neighborhood that is confusing) people start to looking to live elsewhere.

The “common areas” of your organization is the culture and how people interact with each other. Without whitespace and freedom for people to move around without constantly bumping into each other, bad things can start to happen in even the prettiest of places. Most employees seek some level of autonomy and room to move independently to some degree. When you ask people to think “outside of the box” for a solution and the only place they can go is into someone else’s “box”, you’re not likely to see a ton of creativity.

Sanitation is your performance management system. How are you getting rid of the stuff your organization doesn’t want and would be better without? Poor performance management, just like bad sanitation, can make a community sick. Even people who are otherwise healthy become infected by toxic and underperforming employees. You have to execute your performance management plan. Holding people accountable is in many ways its own sense of feedback. People want feedback, they want to give feedback, and most of all, they want the employees who are not pulling their weight to either get the feedback they need and adjust their performance, or be shown the door. Poorly executed performance management, similar to missed trash pickup for months, can create a pretty apathetic environment. People stop doing what they should simply because they see that it doesn’t matter.

Sales and Marketing is how you get new people into your community. You have to have a talent acquisition strategy and you need a brand or at least a concept of what you are selling that is bigger than just the location of your community. Without a talented and aligned recruiting team, you’re getting the wrong residents to your company. With the wrong people in your group you risk turning what could be a great place to live into a culture rife with challenges and conflict, not to mention poor performance.

Human Resource Management is your regulatory affairs group. You need to make sure all the permits are filed, all the taxes paid, all the nuts and bolt of invoicing, etc. Human Resource Management is a huge part of your organization and without all the daily transactions taking place (payroll, time tracking, benefits, etc.) you can’t have employees. Keep in mind, however, that human resource management is not the same as human resource development.

The landscaping is exactly what you might think it is; it is the physical climate of your workplace. Do you have art? plants? carpet? tile? etc. Are there drinks in the refrigerator? Do you have a refrigerator? etc. It is the physical appeal of your exterior and interior. It helps create the vibe. While different from the culture, climate can still influence people’s moods so it is something to pay attention to. Does your company look like a nice place to work?

Oh, and learning. That is something individuals do, not something companies do. I cannot make someone learn, I can create an environment that encourages and rewards learning, I can give tools and resources to help people learn, but ultimately, whether someone learns or not is an individual process. I see many employees who are sent to training to correct behavior and they are resistant, combative, cynical, and sometimes toxic to others who want to learn. Learning is not under your control, just as you cannot make someone like where they live. You can create an environment that is makes learning easier and supports it, but it something each individual goes through at their own pace.

And now to my point. Development is how all of these things come together to build a community. And while my analogy is somewhat simplistic, it  illustrates that development is a long-term and continuing process. Training is an event, and usually has a very specific design for a very specific purpose. You build a training class, people come, they leave. Training is a tool in the development process. What are you doing to create a culture that encourages people to do more, try new things, recruit new talent, keep the landscape nice, and keep their “common areas” clean. How are you translating a development strategy into something more than just going to more trainings?  One of the worst things you can do is expect people to be better simply because of training. No matter how great the training is, if people are not allowed and encouraged to do anything different when they get back, then the training was just something they went to and will NEVER translate into different behavior. (read “Dumping the Water Back in the Pond”). How are you creating an environment where people CAN learn, change, and grow?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” highlights Mastery, or an innate desire to  get better at whatever we are doing, as one of three drivers of human behavior (the other two being Autonomy and Purpose). People want to get better, they want to develop. Good talent professionals create communities and houses and cultures that help people do what they instinctively want to do anyway – develop, grow, learn, and expand. So the question is: are you simply building houses or do you want to develop a community?

Work is not a “place”

The office set for Jacques Tati's Play Time an...

Image via Wikipedia

There is “work” and then there is the “workplace.” Many people think they are the same or that one necessarily must occur at the other yet more and more studies are showing that the traditional office environment stifles creativity, reduces productivity, increases group-think, and can even deteriorate personal health. And while you may read some of my posts and think I advocate abolishing the workplace all together, that is not my stance. I think going to work, at times, is very necessary to getting the results you need. But equally required to achieve results is time somewhere else. Sometimes it is going for a walk, sometimes it is a hike, maybe the gym, maybe a coffee shop, maybe it’s at home.

My stance is: allow people to work where and when they are most productive. It is a sign of trust in your employees, true delegation on your part, and is empowering to you employee.  Not to mention, as this article in Psychology Science suggests, the metaphor “think outside of the box” has real physical significance. Sitting in your cube, office, or office building can constrain your thinking and narrow your perspectives.

I am not necessarily anti-office, I am pro-productivity. Don’t assume presence implies action.  Give people clear expectations, provide access to resources and tools to do their jobs, give them directional feedback, then leave them alone so they can do their jobs.  Your attendance policy may just be hurting your company in more ways than you realize.

Change Communication

I’ve worked with a number of companies regarding change and one thing still boggles my mind – a fundamental misunderstanding of change adoption and how the change team’s progress relates to the general population of the organization.  And more specifically, how delaying communication until you have all the data effects change adoption.

While there are a number of things that can influence the length of time for adoption (complexity, scope, pervasiveness, size of audience, etc.) on thing that has a direct correlation to the speed of adoption is communication. The sooner you let people know change is coming, the faster you can expect adoption. You can also get feedback to address any issues you may not have considered before they become difficult to implement. If you wait too long, resistance seems to become monumental and adjusting anything based on feedback feels like a slap in the face for all the time you feel you have spent considering all options. But there is one perspective you never gave a voice until you were almost ready to roll out the change – theirs.

The Root Problem of the Typical Approach

On a two axis graph (we love those, don’t we?) with time being the horizontal and change progress being the vertical, the change team and change leader start near point zero on both.  As time increases the change team is formulating what the change will look like, how to configure it, shape it, what training is needed (sometimes), who is, etc.  So the line begins to rise as time increases.  We get to initial system testing, or final review and the change line is still climbing.  Then we roll it out.  The change progress for the team is high, but all of the people who just learned about this are staring at zero in terms of change progress. They have had not chance to understand the motivation, reason, impact, disruption, confusion, or anxiety this is going to cause.

What sometimes makes this even more anxiety producing is, even when the communication does begin, the volume is way to low and horribly infrequent. Some companies I have worked with send out a pamphlet with people’s check stubs and that was as far as it went.  Despite all the other issues with that form of communication, the fact that this was the ONLY time and method they communicated a major organizational change left most people struggling to fill in any gaps.  In fact, six months later, some people were still unaware that a change had taken place.

The Psychology of Change

For most change processes, the act of change is linear – you start here and move some levers, change some forms, maybe do some training, and then flip the switch and you are at the end of the change project.  For people, change is never linear. The below graphic depicts the standard understanding of the change curve for most people.

How quickly someone navigates through this curve depends on a number of things: the pervasiveness of the change, how impacted the person is, how long the previous system/process/dynamic was in place, perceived benefit to the new way, etc. But a big piece that is not addressed in the illustration above is the cause for the dip. The cause for denial, resistance, and hesitancy, is fear. We fear change, not a new concept I know but something you can’t just expect people to get over quickly. And when you delay your communication and are expecting them to adopt the change quickly (in comparison to how long the change team has had to absorb it,) under-communication is your enemy.

Here is how under-communication leads to increased resistance. The human brain wants the world to make sense and it will fill whatever void it has to for the world to make sense. (See Gestalt Psychology) Typically, because factual data is not playing a part in filling gaps (hence the gap), our brains do not run to what is most logical – it runs to what is self-preserving (ala Triune Brain Theory). Example: you are hiking down a trail and see a hole in ground that you cannot see into – do you stick your hand in there? Before I get to why not, does the hole have a bottom? Of course it does, because a bottomless hole does not make sense. So what do you fill it with? A $20 bill? Winning lottery ticket? Or is it something more sinister – a snake, spider, scorpion, varmint – all waiting to bite you?  In reality the most likely scenario, is the hole is empty. But our brains don’t go there.  We fill it with something negative that we need to protect ourselves against. The same things happens when there is a ‘hole’ in the communication or understanding of a change. And rather than wait for more information, people fill the gap. That is commonly called “gossip”. We want to fill that gap, we need to fill the gap, and we will usually fill it with something negative.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

The longer gossip festers, the harder it will be to correct it.  What is worse, is negative gossip can feed cynicism which then begins to feed negative gossip – and so the negative culture spiral ensues.  Now communication seems to breed its own resistance, anger, dismissal, and hesitation. This commonly occurs when organizations begin communicating after the negative gossip has started. And it causes most change managers to avoid communicating because it seemingly does no good – and in some instances – can derail the change process by giving a formal channel for high-influence individuals to voice their cynicism.  So if you start too late, yes, sometimes you might be better off just dropping the change in on people, but don’t expect people to like it, gravitate towards it, or accept it quickly. In fact, the best you can expect is mild compliance at that point – people who only do it because there is no other option (that is, IF you take the old method away.)

Start Your Own Gossip

Viral and teaser marketing tactics have been all the rave these days, and for good reason, they get people talking…even if sometimes all they are talking about is the ad and have no real knowledge of the product. Generating buzz about your change is a great way to begin communication. Primarily because it allows you three things right off the bat: no need for all the answers, feedback on possible early resistance, and early buzz. Now, obviously if the change IS negative in its impact (layoffs, pay cuts, etc.) you might want to formalize the message and opt for transparency, but for other changes such as a new technology, new procedure, change in product offering, etc. “viral” marketing can get you a lot of early traction and information. Imagine if Apple put out an ad that said, “get ready to change the world again..” And nothing more, maybe some elusive photos that don’t really show anything.  Trust me, people would be talking.

Doing It Right

Be Early: Even if you are vague.  If you want adoption, start before the gossip gets out of your hands.  Better to have curiosity chatter than negative chatter

Be Everywhere: Information rarely travels through a single medium.  Even if your formal communication channels are usually via one medium, trust me, people get their information elsewhere.  Email, website, intranet, twitter, Facebook, blogs, closed radio circuits piping Musak to your company restrooms, hold music, newsletters, bulletin boards, etc.  For viral messages, I would actually avoid all company meetings. To generate buzz, keep it unidirectional at first.  Coordinate your message releases so they are consistent but make sure you are not relying on one channel.

Be Frequent: Set a schedule and pace yourself to ramp up close to formal announcements.

Be Receptive: Once you plan your formal announcement, provide room for Q&A.  Communication by its very definition is not one-direction so simply telling people something is not communicating…it is informing. Informing has its place in change but do not confuse it with communication.  If you want to communicate change, you need to listen when people talk.  Resistance is simply data. And like all data, it is worthy of analysis. Some data is great, some is not so great, but ignoring it just forces people to fill in the gaps.

Be Transparent-ish: Don’t lie, and don’t hide things that everyone will learn anyway.  If there is a reason you’ve decided to go one direction v another, being honest, even when people don’t always like it, is better than destroying any trust people have in you or your organization.  Once the trust is gone, they don’t even listen anymore since they assume you are lying or manipulating information.  That does not mean always telling them everything, but obscuring the truth is not going to help people trust this change is the best thing for them.

Be Frequent: Doing one information blast is not going to help you get adoption. And don’t assume communication should stop after you have rolled out the change, if anything you should communicate more.

Be A Safety Net: You and your change team are the experts on whatever the change is.  If you want people to catch up to you, don’t assume training and education will happen instantly. Coach people, stay with them, and help them be successful. Telling someone to figure it out on their own usually results in heavy resistance and a gravitation back to what is comfortable. If you want them to make the leap to something new, you have to position yourself to make it okay and to catch them when (yes, when, not if) they fall.

Be Firm: There is a difference between helping smooth the transition for people and allowing the population to drive the change.  At a certain point, someone needs to be firm. Get input and modify implementation – yes.  Deviate from your vision and intended outcomes – no.


Change is hard, not only to implement but to adjust to. People feel uncomfortable in silence. If you are unsure about that, start your next meeting with 45 seconds of silence…and see how long it takes for people to start whispering under their breaths to their coworkers. People fill silence to make themselves feel more comfortable.  This is the essential importance of communication during change – if you aren’t having the conversations, they will.

Dumping the water back in the pond

An analogy I often use when working with clients goes something like this:

“If you scoop a cup of water out of a pond and train it to babble, tell it to babble, convince it what a good idea it is to babble, and then dump the water back in the pond…don’t be surprised that it doesn’t babble.”

The underlying message is, if the underlying system or support means are not set up to facilitate a change in behavior, then chances are you spent a lot of time and energy training or coaching someone to do something that may never or very rarely ever happen.  It is not a question of chicken or egg in this case, it is more a case of make the batter? or put it in the oven? – If you want cake – you gotta do both.

Whether you are working to fix a problem behavior or develop new skills, the solution is the same.  Yes, coach and train IF they do not have the requisite skills AND look at your system and see if it supports new behavior (or old behavior).  The greatest way to inhibit change is to not support it. Not only do people do what is rewarded, they also do what they have the opportunity to do.  If they do not have opportunity to exercise new skills/abilities or are being rewarded to do it the old way, then chances are, no change will happen.

I see this most often in developmental training efforts.  People are sent, invited, voluntold, or in the rare case, seek out, training on a new or developmental skill deficiency.  They attend a potentially career changing training and are super excited to try some new stuff. They then return energized and with new skills/tools/awareness/or ideas and either no follow up happens from the manager or there is no support to do anything different. Imagine going to a photography class and then never being given the opportunity to use a camera when you got back. According to a University of Minnesota study, this is the number one reason training is seldom effective as a change method – no support from the direct supervisor to exercise new skills.

If you want change or you want training to be effective, you have to intentionally alter the bedrock upon which people are working, change the environment, give them support, and create opportunity (not just look for it, CREATE it) for them to do something different.  In BlessingWhite’s recent engagement survey, “opportunity to do more of what I am good at” is cited as a top driver for employee engagement.  Moreover, the same report cited that the number one reason people worldwide indicated they were looking to leave their current organization was “My career: I do not have opportunities to grow or advance here.”  People want to be good at what they do and increasing research is showing that not only do we want to be good at what we do, getting better is actually a motivational driver (Dan Pink, “Drive”).

If you want high performance, change, and people to do innovative things, you have to make sure your foundation supports it.  Are you building a pond that stagnates, or are you building a river to keep your organization current.