On Anxiety and Change Management

En route to my weekly Sunday morning soccer game, I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with David Steindl-Rast, a brilliant, 89 year old Benedictine monk who co-founded the Center for Spiritual Studies. He spoke beautifully about the epic, menacing forces around us, from global warming and environmental destruction to global violence, as legitimate, untouchable sources of anxiety. Steindl-Rast references the origin of the word “anxiety” to the life or death outcome of the birthing process. Sliding through that narrow canal is the first of many episodes of anxiety that we face in a chronically changing world. He emphasizes that we must acknowledge and avail ourselves to our anxiety over these forces, but we must not fear them. There is a great difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a healthy, reasonable response to phenomena in our world that should be trusted and embraced. Fear is the resistance against that anxiety. Sounding like a true change consultant, Steindl-Rast goes on to assert that being comfortable with anxiety should not paralyze us, but should create a heightened sense of curiosity, unleash creativity and open up new possibilities.

Ah yes … you probably know where I am going with this. As a longtime practitioner of organizational change, I believe that Steindl-Rast poignantly captures the challenge of the 21st century professional in an ever-changing business environment. So how can we acknowledge and embrace the anxiety of ongoing change in our companies and broader ecosystem without channeling our response into fear?

As change leaders, we have an opportunity and an obligation to help our teams and our teammates minimize their fear of change. We can do this by relentlessly understanding and accurately communicating the business case for change. We can do this by having candid conversations with project sponsors about how peoples’ jobs will be impacted and how best to manage the transition of a department or function. We can do this by assessing the implications of a change to all stakeholders and then engaging those stakeholders in the design of our transition forward. Knowing more about the business case for change, the impacts to the company, the implications for peoples’ jobs, and the likely options ahead may never reduce anxiety, but it will certainly reduce fear. If we as change leaders can help give our people the courage to welcome and embrace anxiety and, over time, pave the way for that ultimate feeling of safety in an ever-changing business world, then we are truly providing the value that our role requires.

The Promise of Performance Management

The business process of performance management (PM) often seems like an isolated room within the “human capital” house (see figure below). The walls around the room appear opaque, with little visibility or clarity provided to a workforce that wants to understand what informs the performance management process and how the process aligns with other dimensions of one’s career.

HC House

Indeed, performance management continues to be one of the most disheartening and unfulfilling components of the people function. In a recent report from the Institute for Corporate Productivity, Performance Management: Still Waiting for Real Change, “seven out of ten respondents believed that their organization’s PM process is not managed well, and that it does not have a positive effect on performance”. Other findings find it highly administrative, archaic and outdated. According to Bersin by Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends, “performance management is being reinvented for a new, forward looking purpose: to serve as an efficient, focused business process that improves employee engagement and drives business results.” In the minority of organizations that get it right, performance management is a tremendous, value-rich component of the business and a catalyst for accelerated performance and growth. So how can we tear down the walls and connect this tremendously important discipline to the rest of the human capital framework?

Differentiating “performance”

One simple answer is to utilize the PM process to truly recognize superior performers. Rather than simply yielding to an annual, cascaded budgeting exercise that lands on a relatively meaningless and discouraging merit increase range of 2.4% to 3.0% for everyone, we can use thoughtful evaluations completed by conscientious managers. Those managers would assess performance against clear, strategically aligned goals and behavioral competency guideposts to create a wider dispersion among lower and higher performers (e.g. 0% to 5.0%). Similarly, we can annually examine and market test those pivotal or highly valued roles, as defined by our workforce planning process, and adjust salaries accordingly to better price those positions with more market or strategic value. Such a change will better integrate Performance Management with Engagement and Retention (see framework below) and establish more of a meritocracy-based culture. 

Recognizing “potential”

Many organizations have moved away from forced rankings and, instead, have shifted to talent reviews. In this setting, leaders from all functions meet to identify those 20-25% of the workers, across the entire business, which have earned performance-based, discretionary bonuses. Why not use that same process to document and engage those individuals who have demonstrated the “potential” to move into new or emerging roles across the company? Then you can supplement annual review discussions with meaningful dialogue about career aspirations and alternative career ladders. Whether you call this exercise succession management or career planning, the benefit to the employee is that the evaluation is about performance AND about the performer. This extended focus on “potential” better links Performance Management to Succession Management and increases the possibility that valued members of your team will more actively and creatively consider career journeys they can have inside the company.



Bridging performance gaps with learning experiences

Regretfully, there is very little correlation between the performance gap(s) of an individual contributor in one year and the learning path that is designed for that individual in the coming year. The emergence of new learning technologies, social learning, and other modes of development have enabled talent to access more creative avenues for bridging performance gaps, yet this areas remains an underutilized strategy. Exploiting such options will better link Performance Management to Learning and Development and empower our workers to utilize training in its most optimal context – immediate, tied to a specific learning gap, and learner driven.

Articulating your performance culture

How consistent is the employee value proposition you present to a recruiting candidate with the actual Performance Management experience the person witnesses as a new hire? So often candidates are brought into an organization with a misunderstood picture of their earning potential or short-term promotion and leadership opportunities. The first performance review process feels disconnected from the unlimited possibilities shared only months earlier, and the employee is left feeling disillusioned and burned. Clearly discussing the organization’s approach to Performance Management will better link this importance discipline to Talent Acquisition by managing expectations and reducing unwanted attrition.

A company’s Performance Management process is not an uninvited houseguest, left to revel in paper forms and impersonal compliance-based assessments; rather, it is an essential part of the HR family with a rich source of date about how, why, and when employees perform their job. Such insight can fuel the engine of a well functioning talent management practice.

It only takes one bad apple. Or any fruit, for that matter.

Most employers spend countless hours and resources working hard to engage with employees, motivating them to produce at higher levels and actively pursue their career goals. Companies are well aware that a disengaged, disgruntled employee can affect productivity and overall morale. As the old adage says (and research certainly confirms), one bad apple can often spoil the bunch. But what if the unmotivated resource is NOT an employee at all, but instead a contractor or a formal volunteer or a temp or even a robot. In other words, what if the bad apple is not an apple at all, but a banana. What THEN is the risk?

Compelling research* recently completed in a joint study by ERE Media and Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) points to the fact that organizations across the board invest considerably less effort in the motivation and engagement of their non-full time workers than they do in their full-time workforce. In one statistic, “while 51% of organizations make a very big or big effort to motivate and/or engage workers, levels of engagement for non-employees are much lower, varying from a high of 16% for business partners to 4% for online freelancers. “ These numbers do begin to improve a little bit with very large companies (50,000+ employees), companies that are facing severe productivity challenges, and companies trying to better manage a global workforce. The difference, however, is still compelling.

Risks associated with such a limited commitment to a clearly growing segment of the total workforce are significant. While most customers never really know for sure whether an individual representing a company is a full time employee, that individual does carry the reputation and the brand image of the organization in his/her hand. And since the percentage of non-full time employees in companies (e.g. partners, contractors, temps, formal volunteers, robots, outsourced services, franchisees) has grown to 16% as the median, and north of 40% in many organizations, we can begin to appreciate the collective risk of so many neglected workers, whatever their profile.

A few years ago, Lighthouse Consulting wrote a white paper about the need to engage alternative segments of the workforce in different ways, based on the unique profile and drivers associated with each segment. That article, entitled Engagement Agility, is accessible in the Thought Leadership section of this website.

A common objection to the argument for funding engagement initiatives for non-employees relates to the traditionally lower ROI recognized by these segments of the workforce. But wouldn’t funding these initiatives create a more loyal part timer less likely to move on and more committed and dedicated to the job? Additionally, if the proportion of the workforce commanded by these segments continues to increase, wouldn’t the risk of disregarding these contributors become collectively higher and, arguably, begin to erode the ROI and perhaps the retention of the employees with whom these people work on teams and on projects? Finally, why would any company that has strategically chosen to deploy these resources want to make a relatively low ROI any lower? In contrast, the opportunity now exists for companies to differentiate their value population by rethinking the ROI of a flexible workforce and building added value by optimizing their productive output.

This noteworthy research on Total Talent Management (TTM) should light a fire on the agenda of all Talent Leaders who are looking to build a fully engaged workforce capable of driving a collective culture of productivity and innovation. As the workforces of all companies across all sectors become increasingly heterogeneous in nature, Talent Leaders must actively seek their discretionary effort and loyalty in ways that resemble the investments in their more traditional employee base.

* Total Talent Management: Towards an Integrated Strategy for the Employed and Non-Employed Workforce. May 7, 2015

Resistance to change is not a ground rule … It is an investigation.

Business journals are filled with studies that stress the importance of change management to the success of a large business initiative. We read of the “valley of despair”, the “marathon effect” and the “situational” nature of change as characteristics of an organization in transition requiring focus and care. The point is driven home that a large-scale change effort must include the involvement of leaders, a broad suite of communications to multiple stakeholders, and a detailed analysis of how one’s job will change over time.

Despite this clarity of purpose related to organizational change, I contend that the most challenging component of a large business initiative to scope is the change management work stream. While so many of the activities associated with change management are predictable, these standard tasks comprise at most 70% of the overall work effort. The balance of the work is the tougher and, perhaps, more important part of the change leader’s role. This additional 30% is the detective work that determines where and why resistance occurs in small or large pockets of the business. Resistance is like a chameleon – it takes many different forms, some more discreet than others. It can be as bold as a leader who vocally challenges the legitimacy of an initiative in an executive meeting, as subtle as that same leader “choosing” not to incorporate initiative updates into the agenda, or as challenging as fighting your way through an “opt out” culture where if people don’t want to change…they don’t…and there’s no accountability. If we can successfully uncover the more implicit types of resistance, then we can clarify misconceptions, offer proof or a business case when we face objections from skeptics, and bring perspective and empathy to those situations where the concerns are real and valid.

In one client situation involving the adoption of a sophisticated forecasting tool, my team recognized the unexpected need for heightened support and training of an anxious forecasting team on data analytics and statistical models in order to utilize the tool’s functionality. In another situation involving a change to the sales process at a uniform rental company, we learned that resistant sales personnel needed some interim assistance from a newly created sales analyst role in order to more easily manage the transition to a highly automated future state. Neither of these scenarios were anticipated at the time the initial work plan was developed.

What are some of the ways change leaders can effectively and respectfully investigate resistance in the business? How can we break down those barriers that might mask the issues that really matter? Some ideas are proposed below:

  • Face to face leadership communication:In addition to the status calls and project communications already in place, the change leader must find time to speak to individual leaders who hold positional and cultural power. Ask about the project and their view of the progress, the organization’s buy-in to the effort, and what they feel their role should be.
  • Change agents or champions: Change agents are typically highly respected peer members of a functional team that will be impacted by a pending change. These individuals can become a valuable two-way communication channel between the project team and the impacted users. They are often best able to discern where legitimate, unspoken pockets of resistance occur and distinguish those from dysfunctional, unhealthy reactions in the business.
  • Empathy-based Inquiry: The Change leader has a responsibility to ask the questions which the impacted workforce will not think to ask, due primarily to the empathetic lens through which he/she views the project. For example, if a sales process get re-engineered to accommodate a new CRM tool, the change leader must ask how the sales team can be expected to hit certain goals (e.g. meetings per day), given heightened documentation requirements.
  • Intuition and Pattern Recognition: A change leader, whether internal to the business or external to the company, must instinctively be on the lookout for recognizable patterns from prior projects or other industries. These indicators enable the leader to suggest and test potential sources of resistance that are not yet explicit. If a finance manager in an automotive company reacts to a new budgeting process in a specific way, it is not unlikely that someone in that same role at a pharmaceutical company won’t have similar concerns. These possibilities must be mentally captured and documented for the team’s collective consideration.

While the change leader is not typically wearing a trench coat and a hat characteristic of modern day detectives, high performing change management teams are actively investigating the less obvious sources of resistance to business initiatives. They do this by listening and learning, asking and empathizing, connecting and engaging, so that proposed changes in the business can be openly discussed with the right people and with the right concerns at hand.

(this article was reposted from the website of Blossom Growth Partners (www.blossomgrowth.com))

Effective Listening: How Experience and Technology (ET) can make us listen like aliens in the workplace.

The first communications course I took as a new sales hire for a forest products company introduced the skill of effective listening. I remember learning that good communicators listen for facts, feelings and emphasis. The facts represent the content, the data, the information. The feelings capture the way the message is transmitted … the tone and volume of the voice and the facial expression. Finally, emphasis defines where the passion lies, as depicted by energy, posture, eye contact and inflection. I learned that effective salespeople and, several years later, effective consultants, must actively listen for all three.

Effective listening is arguably the most difficult communication skill, as compared to presenting or questioning or negotiating. Two of the barriers that impede our use of this skill are the experience we have gained and the technologies we use in our professional journeys. Rather than tools that advance our listening competence, they have become obstacles. Our growth and fulfillment in the workplace depends upon our recognition of these challenges and our commitment to addressing them.

How can years of experience impede your ability to listen? Certainly, over each of our “storied” careers, we have built up biases around how we interpret the world and how we respond to varied points of view, word choices, expressions and presentation styles. These biases are limited and only marginally impactful in the early years of our career. Biases become more substantial and less flexible, however, as we mature and continue to use them to rationalize the judgments we make. Similarly, and somewhat related, are the “verbal patterns” of thinking that build up in our mind and, regrettably, become the organizing framework (and sometimes the receptacle) for much of what we hear every day. How often do we mentally finish and ultimately judge someone’s comments regarding a recommendation or a point of view because it begins to sound exactly like what so many others believe? As professionals and as continuous learners, we must resist any attempt to profile incoming ideas. Certainly, our experience can advance the conversation and build on new insights. But we must listen with the assumption that any idea, from top to bottom, reflects fresh thinking and unique perspective so that we can incorporate our experience in the most optimal way and collaboratively create new insight. By exercising patience, putting aside our biases and listening carefully with no assumed verbal pattern in mind, we can relish the merit of new ideas and the feelings behind them.

And what about technology? How in the world can digital technology and hand-held devices impede our listening skills? Well, for starters, let’s go back to our opening comment about listening for facts, feelings and emphasis. While smartphones and tablets, Twitter and Facebook, and dozens of business applications (e.g. travel sites, uber) have dramatically revolutionized our business day experience in so many positive ways, technology has had a catastrophic effect on the listening process of business leaders, many of whom once prided themselves on being engaged listeners. Contemporary listeners often do not “hear” the specific content in the message, because they are actively and often discreetly multi-tasking. Their ears are trying to catch the message, while their eyes are tracking texts or apps on their phone. Many listeners have no clue how a communicator feels about the message being conveyed, because there was probably limited eye contact, and the listener had only enough bandwidth to capture the words, not the feelings, much less the emotions, behind the message. So often the story behind the communication is abandoned, and the verbage sits on its own island, void of the empathy and context upon which it depends.

As if poor listening “costs” related to existing biases and our on-line mentality aren’t high enough, imagine the additional switching costs incurred when we attempt to go back and forth between these elements. Have you ever tried listening to a complicated business situation, then looked down at a long-awaited text or email, and then attempted to reconnect to the story with the SAME level of empathy and insight? These transitions carry an economic burden and, of course, bear a personal cost on the team members who look to our leadership.

While this article sheds light on societal norms widely known, it hopefully presents a candid view of two very real, yet very manageable, barriers in our professional communication. I

own a huge yellow lab whose name is Bubba, and when I ask Bubba if he wants to go to the park, I am met with a reaction that demonstrates the truest form of effective listening. His head jerks up, and he stares at me with complete engagement, eyes bulging out of their sockets and staring at me like lasers. I have his complete attention. Bubba has a great deal of experience with this oft-repeated question, but his reaction is always enthusiastic and reflects no internal bias … and he never finishes my sentence. There is no multi-tasking or technology, because Bubba turns off his smartphone when I speak to him. Now while we may all be a little too busy to always “listen like a lab”, are we giving those who speak to us our complete attention? I do think we have room in our day to listen respectfully and wholeheartedly to what our colleagues are saying to us. No one will perfect this skill, but pursuing excellence will help us each learn and grow. Over time, we can begin to listen less like an alien, and more like a human.

Effectively managing organizational change requires more intuition than intellect

In his biography, entitled Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes extensively about Jobs’ early years travelling to Indian villages and studying Indian culture and meditation. Jobs was keenly impressed with the Eastern world’s focus on intuition and experiential wisdom, which lay in stark contrast to the more rational, regimented business norms of the West. In one particular excerpt, Jobs discusses how your intuition blossoms and more subtleties get noticed only when you are able to calm the mind down and relieve it from the craziness of Western culture.

I am continually reinforced by the notion that effective change management is more a product of intuition than structured, rational thinking. I often tell clients that for any given change initiative, there is, at most, 60-70% of the work effort that is somewhat predictable – the need to articulate a business case for the change, an assessment of key stakeholders, the development of a communication strategy, the design of a training curriculum supported by a job impact assessment, and other key components of a standard change management framework. These are important ingredients of your change plan, as they ensure that leadership is aligned with the project, the workforce is informed of and competent enough to execute the change, and the likely risks associated with the initiative are understood and mitigated.

But resistance to change can be irrational and, often, quite personal. The ability of the change leader to detect and explore the less obvious, yet most potent, forms of resistance requires intuition, not an intellectual approach to the project plan. The more subtle forms of resistance can be detected only when the change leader, for example, recognizes that the highly competent, “go to” member of a functional team may lose prestige and respect when a new technology automates and “wipes out” the self-created expertise he has built over several years. Or the General Manager in one country refuses to support a new sales process because her region was not included as one of the pilot sites. Or the collections manager who now has responsibilities for collecting receivables at far higher thresholds is nervous about managing conflict with senior client buyers. These are only a few of the many examples that we witness throughout a change effort when we take the necessary time to slow down, sit back, and open our senses. That critical balance between the structure of our work and the exploration of the subtleties in our environment will ensure that we have incorporated both intellect and intuition into our critical role as a change leader.

Indeed, the legacy of Apple Computer that began with Jobs’ vision and tenacity in launching the Macintosh and, later, the iPod and iPhone was not born from intellect as much as from an intuition about what people didn’t know they needed. Such intuition can only be gained from thoughtful observation and inquiry. If we as change leaders can slow ourselves down and apply ourselves to the challenging, but important, task of intuitive thinking, then we can leave that same kind of legacy for how a company can actually thrive during times of change.