Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The times they are a callin - For courage and empathy


Down here in sunny Melbourne it's easy to forget the turmoil happening right now in Queensland and New South Wales in the wake of treacherous Cyclone Debbie; especially if like me, you limit the amount of news and current affairs you will expose yourself to on any given day.

I refuse to go into the specifics of tragedy as I'm sure some people are triggered enough. But two questions keep bubbling up for me and it may be useful for workplace parallels to be drawn.

1. What's courage?

2. How can one feel empathy if another's situation is not in one's line of sight? And how can one voluntarily engage with any change if they don't understand the reason/s for it?

How do people show courage at work? Just a few...

They plan for and engage in, difficult, high-risk conversations despite concerns about retaliatory aggression, the cold shoulder, the bullying grievance, the office gossip, the backlash from up on high when the nose-out-of-joint person has gone above them and the possibility that they're unsuccessful, but do it anyway.

They may be the lone voice for or against a particular position or strategy but care enough to risk being marginalised or told they are troublesome/negative/cynical/too scared/not scared enough. How much money, even millions is squandered as we throw good money after bad, convinced we can still save the sinking ship?

They call out bad behaviour and draw a line in the sand for good culture even where there is a possibility of being victimised for doing so or the person concerned is a close friend who may well play the "friendship card" afterwards.

They make an agonising decision to let someone go on misconduct or sustained poor performance (and only after due process) even though they have compassion for the offending party's personal situation or hired that person themselves. How often do people cling to bad decisions because they can't accept they made a mistake in the first place?

How might one mitigate the risk of fallout when they act with courage in the above examples?

· Provide the "why" of the message, not just the "what"

· Use the "Tevye principle (inspired by Fiddler on The Roof) by explicitly stating the "On the one hand we could do but the consequences would be Y. I believe we should do this as we mitigate those risks by doing that.

· Transition into the bad news message with a "This is not an easy matter to raise but I feel compelled to do so and I hope you can trust the reasons why...." or " I think there's something we've not yet considered and that is ...."

How might we create line of sight to foster empathy and engagement?

Again always provide the "why" as well as the "what" for organisational change. The shared purpose is the foundational piece to attitudinal and behavioural change (including different ways of working)

Remember people have to hear a message up to nine times before it may register (McKinsey)

Remember also that executive teams may have had weeks or months to get used to an idea and can become too impatient too early thus serving to shore up resistance to new ideas and intended changes and be described as "aloof/unfeeling" or "out of touch"

Never underestimate the critical importance of consistent role models. Hold coaching circles for executive or other leadership teams for the specific purpose of rigorous self- examination of the extent to which they are all demonstrating the attitudes and behaviours necessary to inspire confidence and behaviour change in others. Tell them to leave their egos at the door and agree that no one present is above feedback.

Provide reinforcement for positive employee behaviours and progress. Once I start a survey I am addicted to the movement and instant feedback created by my answers. I feel compelled to see that bar move ever closer to 100% complete and the "Finished!" sign at the end (Am I the only one?)

Develop and stick to a communication strategy to keep the "why" alive. Some clients do it extremely well. They storyboard many overlapping initiatives to keep an unforgettable narrative at the forefront of employee minds and utilise different modalities (Visual, Auditor, Kinaesthetic) to achieve it.

We all have a well-developed ability to 'thin slice' information and extrapolate from that. It's a kind of data processing shorthand for survival. If a hooded man holding a knife rushed at me in a cobblestoned city lane way, I would want to be able to perceive threat quickly, not wait until I'd registered the colour of his eyes, the length of the knife, his likely height and weight or the brand of his sneakers. In other words, to transcend tunnel vision and give people a line of sight to the picture, we have to provide the frame. Most of us mere mortals sit in judgment, readily and often. Encouraging others to suspend judgment and give them line of sight to what we see and how we want them to see it requires elegant facilitation, patience and bounce-backability lest we become too easily demoralised too early and before we observe any traction. When clients get disheartened at the first sign of organisational resistance or regression I remind them that while some AFL clubs are on the cusp of premiership success, others have a 5-10 year rebuilding plan and remain motivated and attached to that.

As I write this, the sun is shining and a cool breeze heralds another beautiful day in the most liveable city in the world. But other people are in other places, figuratively and literally and assuming the difficult should be easy and that our reality is theirs is folly.

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