Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Use Ethical Ploys to Change the World

Categories: The Ethical Ploy

In this series, I’ve been discussing the use of ethical ploys by practitioners to add value where it is needed, but not solicited. I define an ethical ploy as a “noble ruse” that guides someone toward seeing a point of view he or she might not have otherwise been open to.

In this post, I’d like to present two examples of ethical ploys that highlight the concept of enticing people, in an honorable way, to see more than they asked for or expected from a situation. As you will see, the results of either can have benefits far beyond the realization of the change goals.

Change, Change Everywhere

Change destabilizes people when it invalidates their expectations about important issues or events. Many people already face more of this kind of crisis than they can effectively absorb. And all the evidence suggests that we can expect only more of this kind of chaos in the future. To prevent future shock  from setting in, people must become adept at all three scales of change—personal, organizational, and social. However, many of the best learning opportunities for developing resilience are in the organizational arena. To enhance their quality of life, it’s best if people learn to assimilate the growing burden of change without falling into the dysfunction of future shock—and what better learning laboratory than the work setting to acquire these lessons? The ethical ploy for practitioners lies in teaching people how to manage change at the office in a way that also exposes them to the personal and societal applications of the same principles.  

The lessons for addressing change in general can be learned by implementing specific projects at work. By helping people learn and apply the dynamics of change on corporate initiatives, it is possible for them accomplish far more. They can learn to implement reorganization plans, new technology, quality-improvement programs, or key acquisitions in a way that dramatically reduces unnecessary resistance and significantly increases commitment to implementation success. This is the ethical part—the part that was asked for. In the process, however, the people learning these skills can also become aware of application opportunities in their personal lives as well as their schools, religious institutions, and communities. 

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

We all need to learn to relate to each other more effectively. It is alarming to witness the mounting misunderstandings and conflicts among the diverse individual perspectives and cultural norms represented in today’s workplace. We see the same divisiveness in stressed-out families, in strife-torn countries, and among alienated religious beliefs as well as belligerent governments. Our species’ collective inability to respect and creatively use diversity significantly reduces the speed and effectiveness with which we can assimilate change.

If we are to succeed in turbulent times, we must deal with each other in a way that fosters a value for diversity. We can do this by collaborating together more synergistically. The work place is the perfect environment to learn this lesson, but positioning synergy within some kind of “mom and apple pie/do the right thing” framework does not appeal to the majority of leaders. Most executives expect sermons and philosophical lessons to come from their church, synagogue, or university, not their place of work. Many leaders simply want us to tell them what will help make their organizations operate in a more nimble fashion.

In this light, it is best to position change-related synergy as an approach to managing diverse viewpoints in order to maximize productivity and quality with minimum consumption of assimilation resources. Synergy is a mechanism that fosters creativity, empowerment, and engagement, but these are secondary to its primary business application in most situations—realizing critically important change endeavors. The face value of synergy for most managers is that it produces more output with fewer resources, thus increasing an organization’s overall resilience during change.

The ethical part of promoting this type of teamwork relates to the overwhelming evidence that synergy truly helps people accomplish more change with less time, effort, and money than would be needed otherwise. The ploy is in helping people see that there is an alternative to the 1 + 1 < 2 (destructive) or 1 + 1 = 2 (static) equations of human interaction. The prevalence of static and self-destructive relationships among people throughout the world does not result from human nature…it’s human habit. Many people are in these types of relationships because of poor teamwork skills, customs, and ignorance. By helping them see how synergistic relationships can be built and fostered at work, they may be able to apply the same perspectives and approaches in their personal and societal lives.

Influence Without Coercion

Sometimes, it is necessary to be less than fully candid about what’s behind our actions when a client asks for our advice about a problem. Under the right conditions, it’s actually important to try to influence clients using an honorable form of masquerade called ethical ploys.

These noble ruses guide people toward seeing a point of view they might not have otherwise been open to, by using a client’s existing frame of reference and fulfilling the client’s request for help. Affirmed clients feel less defensive and are more open to new views.

As change facilitators, we have a unique opportunity to use ethical ploys to go beyond what is asked of us and add value where it is needed, but not seen, understood, or considered relevant.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: November 29, 2011 12:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Five Elements of “Virtuous Trickery”

Categories: The Ethical Ploy


In my last post, I described ethical ploys—noble ruses that help people address issues or information they wouldn’t otherwise see, understand, or consider relevant. Ethical ploys don’t overtly force or covertly manipulate anyone into thinking or doing anything. They are a way of opening doors, not pushing people through them.

An ethical ploy is an approach to influencing others that requires being less than fully transparent, yet it is principled for three reasons:

  • It demands that you do exactly what you agreed to do (offer advice about the problem as presented).
  • It requires that you believe the new perspective you are promoting represents a positive opportunity for theclient. (Even though there may be advantages for you if he or she accepts the new viewpoint, your motives are not primarily self-serving. You are honestly offering something that you believe is in this person’s best interest.)
  • It requires respecting the person’s right (despite your efforts) to being unready or unwilling to accept your point of view. (Just because you show people doors doesn’t mean they are ready to go through them.)

The ethical safeguard in such an approach comes from delivering what you promise, having the person’s best interest at heart, and not coercing him or her if your views aren’t accepted. The ploy is to guide people toward new journeys by leading them down familiar paths.

Although the term ethical ploy may be unfamiliar, many of us unconsciously use this approach. We may, therefore, not be as careful of its potential misuse as we should be. Ethical ploys are ways of trying to influence people. As such, it is important to remember that the task is to fulfill our agreed-to obligations while exposing, not coercing, people to new interpretations of what they normally see.

The more emphasis we put on the ethical aspects of this technique, the more powerful our ploys can be. When you meet other people’s needs and respect the sovereignty of their viewpoint, you increase the likelihood that you can meet your own agenda of changing their minds.

Once people feel their needs are being met, you can be more direct about your intentions without offending or appearing to be pushing your perspective. The key when using ethical ploys is to keep in mind that, in spite of how passionately you believe in your own frame of reference, others will not come to accept your views unless and until they are ready to do so.

Here are five things to remember when using an ethical ploy to enroll other people into your viewpoint:

  • Identify what the people you are trying to influence want to achieve.
  • Be clear about what you want to accomplish with them that is beyond what they are asking for.
  • Promise to provide all or at least some aspect of what they want.
  • Fulfill this obligation exactly as promised.
  • Expose them to a new perspective.

After applying an ethical ploy, be prepared to either seize the moment (if people gravitate toward the additional perspective you opened up for them) or accept that either their readiness for doing so or your reframing skill is not up to the task.

In my next post, I’ll describe in detail two ethical ploys that, when used in an organizational setting, have much broader implications.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: November 22, 2011 04:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

When Change Agents Go Undercover

Categories: The Ethical Ploy

“While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive.”    —Sissela Bok

Have you ever known people who covertly try to manipulate others to achieve their own selfish desires? Of course you do. We all know that self-serving deception is bad under any circumstances. As professional change facilitators, we are acutely aware of the negative impact this kind of deceit has on the implementation process. Therefore, any kind of surreptitious activity to influence others is unacceptable, right?

Not necessarily.

There are circumstances where it is in the client’s best interest for us to be less than fully candid about what’s behind our actions. Under the right conditions, it’s actually important to try to influence clients using an honorable form of masquerade I’ll call the ethical ploy.

An ethical ploy is at work when a practitioner grants a client’s request to do something but fulfills the obligation in such a way that the client not only gets what was promised (the ethical part) but also has an opportunity to gain a great deal more than was requested (the ploy). Ethical ploys are actually noble ruses that guide people toward seeing a point of view they might not have otherwise been open to. Practitioners can use this form of “virtuous trickery” when they wish to go beyond what was asked of them and add value where it is needed, but not necessarily solicited.

There are plenty of times when it is important to challenge a client’s thinking overtly. Other times, however, we’ll gain more ground by paradoxically agreeing to help with what we disagree is the best route to pursue. Using a client’s existing frame of reference is sometimes the best way to help him or her develop a new perspective. For example, you could refuse to help a sponsor because you believe that he or she is asking for the wrong thing. That may leave the sponsor angry and alienated, though, and if that happens, it might reduce your chance of further influence. Instead, by granting the client’s request for help, you can demonstrate an acceptance of his or her perspective. A client who feels affirmed is less likely to be defensive. Less defensive means more open to new views.

For example, if a sponsor asks for your advice about addressing an employee’s poor change-related performance, you have an opportunity to grant the request and help that sponsor see how he or she may be contributing to the situation in some way.

The ethical way to deal with these situations involves first offering some straightforward guidance regarding exactly what the sponsor requested. Here’s an example:

Ann (the sponsor): Derrick is driving me crazy. He submits sloppy work and always misses deadlines associated with his initiative responsibilities. What do I have to do to fire him without getting into a lawsuit—or at least be able to defend myself if legal action can’t be avoided?

You: I recommend that you document your concerns. Be specific about the incidents that demonstrate the gap between your expectations and his performance. If there should be litigation, feedback is not considered by the court to be helpful to people unless it is given in a way that provides concrete examples. Also, be careful not to imply anything about his intent. Someone’s motives about doing or not doing something can be difficult to prove legally. It’s usually best to stay focused on documented behavior.

Something else to consider is whether anything you are doing is influencing his behavior. For example, I’ve seen people fail to comply with change directives because they don’t have adequate training or meaningful incentives. When this happens, sponsors are inadvertently contributing to the very problem that frustrates them.

This is not something you want to be vulnerable to. I assume your ultimate objective isn’t to fire Derrick, but to ensure this critically important initiative is fully realized. In fairness to him, and to protect yourself, you should carefully examine your contribution to the problem as well as his.

Ann’s request for assistance was meant to accomplish only one thing—terminate Derrick without triggering legal action or at least be prepared for litigation, should it occur. If you had offered any other advice without addressing that issue first, you would probably have met with resistance. By granting what Ann wanted in a way that also raised additional, unsolicited issues, a window of opportunity opened for her to broaden her perspective on the situation. She may not understand, agree with, or take action on the new frame of reference you offer, but by applying the ethical ploy, at least you had an opportunity to influence her.

In my next post, I’ll describe the five elements of ethical ploys.

Posted on: November 16, 2011 04:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What's so great about a mom and pop store? Let me tell you something, if my mom and pop ran a store I wouldn't shop there.

- George Costanza



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