OCI #20: The We-Bes
Organizational cynicism and the long tail of poorly-implemented change
Lots of Change
Many forces drive change in organizations. Leaders initiate programs they believe will make a positive difference—sometimes driven by personal values or ethical concerns, sometimes by the latest trends in organizational effectiveness. Efforts to address customer and employee needs; regulatory changes, mergers, new technologies…each leading to an initiative designed to move the organization forward.
While each of these initiatives is begun with the best of intentions, the problem is that many of them begin with a lot of fanfare and then sink beneath the waves. If you ever wonder “what happened to…” when you run across an email from several years ago, or a manual from an old training program, you are not alone.
A long time ago, one of my favorite clients introduced me to the “we-bes”—those people who have been around for a while and seen change come and go. She characterized their response to change as one of patient cynicism: “we be here when you come…we be here when you go.”
Every time a change is initiated and not sustained, we do more than waste the resources invested in the project. We teach people not to listen to us. Much like Aesop’s fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf , people tune us out and stop believing we are serious when we announce a new project. They joke about the “change du jour” or the “flavor of the month.” And who can blame them?1
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Breaking the Cycle
This issue can lead to an escalating cycle in which increased levels of cynicism are met with more focused change management efforts and more impactful communication strategies, which serve to further inflate expectations, which then lead to further disillusionment if the change efforts do not yield the promised results.
From my perspective, there are several things that can be helpful in breaking this cycle:
The importance of sponsorship in change is well-established. In effective change initiatives, agents work in service to sponsors, who play a key role in setting clear expectations and driving accountability. It has become increasingly common for sponsors to delegate many of their responsibilities to change agents. This has become increasingly common with the rise of the professional change agent role. When change is truly sponsor-driven, there is a subtle shift in the sponsor/agent working relationship in which the agent takes great care to gauge the sponsor’s level of commitment and urgency and calibrate their own level of effort accordingly, rather than working to fill the gap left by a sponsor whose attention is elsewhere.
It’s been said that “you get what you measure.” I disagree. You get what you reinforce. When there are real, tangible consequences to individuals, teams, and departments for the results of change initiatives, people pay more attention. Effective measures are an important step, but I have seen many situations in which organizations created excellent measures of change outcomes and then failed to attach any meaningful consequences to them by tying them to performance indicators, integrating them into appraisals, etc.
When I have helped organizations take an inventory of the change initiatives they have under way, the totals quite regularly run to more than 100, and it’s often an excruciating process to put the list together. If it’s that hard for leaders and planners to come up with a list, it’s unfathomable to imagine how others in the organization have any idea of what they are supposed to be doing to bring these changes to fruition. The good news is that when the first two items I’ve outlined here are addressed effectively, a natural “pruning” takes place as sponsors make choices about where they will spend their energy and what outcomes they will hold people accountable for.
It’s harder for people to become cynical about changes they helped create. I’ve saved this item for last because although high levels of participation and engagement sound like a panacea, they’re not the answer to everything. Many of the initiatives on organizational lists are non-negotiable because of regulatory requirements, long-term strategies, and changes in technology. It’s not always possible or desirable to seek high levels of involvement in these decisions. (Here’s a post I wrote about this topic.) However, there are places where engaging the organization to define the future together is not only possible but deeply powerful and energizing. The field of Organization Development has a lot of tools for doing this work. And even when people are not in a position to decide what needs to change, getting them involved in how they will change can meaningfully increase levels of engagement.
The Opposite of Cynicism
What does it feel like to be in an organization where each change that is made receives a full share of attention, delivers results, and creates a sense of optimism, hope, trust, and possibility? Take a few minutes and think about times and places where you have felt this sense of a positive spiral—a team you’ve been part of, a leader you have worked for, a project you’ve been involved with. Identify the factors that contributed to the healthy ways of operating—the ones I’ve mentioned above, plus any others that come to mind. Think about how you might bring some of these elements into your present situation, especially if it is one where there has been a history of unfulfilled promises. It can be hard to start turning these spirals around, but it’s well worth the effort.
I hope you have enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections! See you in a couple of weeks for the next issue. If you like it, please share.
As a side note, I will say that this is a particular problem in organizations that are tied to political cycles, with new leaders and new sets of priorities and directives coming in on a regular basis. In many of these organizations the game really is to just duck and wait for waves of change to roll through. Probably worth another article some time…