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More on When and How to Apply the Provocateur’s Role

Categories: Provocateur

Change practitioners who take on the provocateur’s role must be confrontational when necessary, willing to handle the deep emotions of change, and have tough conversations if called for.

This is my final post in this series. Here, I am continuing with my list of ten things that can inhibit change agents from engaging the provocateur’s stance. I’ll also describe what to do about them.

6.   Be a provocateur, or prepare to be part of the 70%.

From the Dirty Secrets Series

Practitioners who don’t provide a provocateur’s perspective when needed contribute to the 70% failure rate in the following ways:

  • They succumb to client pressure to make fundamental change appear easier, simpler, faster, less risky, and/or less costly than it really is.
  • They are not as explicit as they should be about the negative implications when clients attempt to execute more projects than their organization can effectively absorb, instead of narrowing their focus to a few, high-priority initiatives that are truly business imperatives.
  • They put job security ahead of being frank and straightforward with clients about unpleasant issues they would prefer not to discuss.
  • They reduce or weaken their recommendations so a client will be more comfortable, but fail to explain that doing so requires a corresponding reduction of their outcome expectations.
  • They work with leaders who aspire to transform their organizations but are unwilling to transform themselves, yet don’t inform them that this reluctance could keep their project from reaching realization.
  • They go along with the myth that it is possible to avoid mistakes during change, instead of encouraging clients to learn from their errors.
  • They are guilty of sidestepping the messier emotional side of change in favor of the easier-to-deal-with logical aspects.
  • They accept more assignments than they can properly support and end up providing thinner expertise and/or less of their mindshare than projects warrant.

7.   Don’t just “help.” Practice the craft. 

From the Practicing the Craft Series

Providing “help” is what practitioners do when they accommodate what their clients ask for or are comfortable with, instead of what is needed for change to succeed. Practicing the craft means staying true to what your chosen approach indicates should be done, even if that runs against clients’ expectations and predispositions.

This view is foreign to many in our field so I’ll elaborate. Many practitioners assume we should follow the same customer-service adage other service providers do—in order to generate the maximum value, deliver whatever the client wants. This axiom, which has become doctrine for other professions, is not always good guidance for us. There are times when we should actually maintain the integrity of our craft over supplying the help clients request.

It doesn’t matter what approach to change is being used. If it is based on creating genuine, lasting benefit instead of political safety for the practitioner, there will be times when what is asked for or expected by the client doesn’t match what is needed. Similar to the physician/patient relationship, professional change facilitators shouldn’t be constrained by recommending only what their clients are ready for. You wouldn’t want your doctor to withhold the biopsy results of a malignant tumor, just because he thinks you will be upset and unwilling to deal with it. Neither can we fail to be explicit about what our clients are dealing with and what needs to be done to accomplish their change aspirations.

Like some ill patients, clients are not always fully prepared to act on what is required to reach their stated objectives. Yet, both doctors and change practitioners owe it to the people they serve to provide an honest portrayal of the circumstances at hand, a plan of action to deal with the real issues, and, finally, a prognosis for success.

In order to practice our craft, we must be prepared to state definitively and in a straightforward manner what needs to happen for intended outcomes to be fully realized. When, instead, we do what a client asks and, in the process, hedge on giving full and explicit feedback, or pull back from our actual recommendations because we believe they “aren’t ready” to embrace reality…we have opted to “help” them instead of staying true to what we believe is in their best interest.

It is not our role to impose our will on clients. However, we can’t maintain our professional standards if we quietly assist them as they avoid or deny what is honestly needed to realize their change aspirations. No matter what methodology you use, practicing the craft of change facilitation demands that you be both courageous and disciplined. Without these traits, functioning as a change professional is a hollow way to make a living.

We are not here to argue or engage in power struggles with clients; we are here to do all we can to ensure they make informed decisions. The best way to do this is to remain consistent with the axioms and guidelines that comprise your chosen change implementation approach (whatever it may be).

The benefits of such a stance are paradoxical in nature. By placing a higher priority on maintaining the integrity of your professional convictions than on keeping your clients comfortable (and you protected), you’ll generate significantly more value to them. The more value you are associated with creating, the more secure you’ll be professionally. The intriguing twist here is that by standing firm on practicing the craft as the foundation for your work, rather than helping when clients ask for the wrong things, you will more likely build a strong following of people who want to work with you. (This is just as true for internal practitioners as it is for outside consultants.)

Granted, this way of relating to clients doesn’t always make you popular with those looking for someone to do their bidding. However, in my opinion, this is the best way to find people who are seeking change practitioners with deep convictions and the courage and discipline to be honest about what it really takes to successfully change.

Helping is when we curtail our guidance to be consistent with what clients will see as acceptable. Practicing the craft is when we bring forward, with unvarnished truth, what our chosen implementation approach calls for. The less we try to help and the more we practice our craft, the better it is for our clients and ourselves.

8. Confront clients to help them see new perspectives.

From the Reframing Series

For many change facilitators, being direct and explicit is the most difficult part of trying to reframe people. Challenging the way clients look at the world is risky, both personally and professionally. People can become trapped in their existing perspectives and lose their ability to adapt to important changes. Not only do most people tend to believe only what they see, but they also see only what they believe exists.

Sometimes, the way to effect movement from the status quo is to “confront” people with the true price for what is required to accomplish the desired outcome. I am not implying we should be argumentative or insulting. Rather, we should metaphorically hold up a mirror so they can see and face the implications of their current mindset and/or behaviors. Here is an example:

“I understand how you view this situation and I can see how it has led you to have the priorities you do, take certain positions, and do the things you do. That said, the current course you are on will lead to consequences that I don’t think are in your best interest. The same circumstances, however, viewed differently, could provide some alternatives that may work more in your favor. If you keep your present mindset, you will probably not solve the problem (or leverage the opportunity) the way you ultimately want. You’ll need a different perspective to accomplish that. I know it’s difficult to redefine your view of things, but I believe it is important to try because I honestly believe you will not be satisfied with the result otherwise.”

The confrontational aspect of reframing means we care enough about the individual to be completely honest about the downside of their current perspective and to offer an alternative view.

From the Sponsorship Series

Here are some examples of situations when practitioners, acting as provocateurs, should confront sponsors:

  • The sponsor is not deeply committed to the changes he or she expects others to implement.
  • The sponsor doesn’t deal with the black holes beneath him or her.
  • A sponsor won’t apply sufficient consequences to match the change-related communications.
  • A sponsor promotes change with public pronouncements but then doesn’t create the cascading network of sustaining sponsors needed below him or her.
  • The sponsor doesn’t recognize (or doesn’t care) when he or she is involved in Triangular or Square relationships and/or doesn’t know how to respond appropriately in each situation.
  • The sponsor demonstrates some, but not enough, of the characteristics needed to succeed in his or her role and the practitioner fails to call attention to it.

Something true about all of us—experts and novices alike—is that, at various times, we all fall prey to the trap of not doing what we know to be the right thing. There are only two kinds of practitioners in this regard: those who admit it and those who don’t.

In addition, we can't get off the hook by saying, “Well, I tried to raise the concern but the sponsor wouldn’t listen,” or “I couldn’t get on his calendar,” or “I had to be subtle so as not to ruffle any feathers and I guess she didn’t get my point.” None of this reduces our responsibility to be explicit, direct, and even forceful, if necessary, to ensure sponsors understand what they must do to reach realization of their desired outcomes.  

What I mean is, we are often aware of what a situation calls for us to do or say but find ourselves sometimes reluctant to engage the actions we know we should.

9.   Step forward to handle the deep emotions triggered by change.

From the Catharsis Series

Sometimes practitioners are hesitant to be challenging when emotions run high. Even during those cathartic moments when clients are past their zone of comfort, the provocateur should do the following:

  • Communicate in ways that are direct, explicit, and, when appropriate, prescriptive and confrontational (though not argumentative)
  • Present thought-provoking questions that encourage exploration of issues at a deeper level than normal
  • Challenge viewpoints, biases, and perceived limitations in a provocative but respectful manner
  • Probe, and sometimes contest, certain basic beliefs and assumptions on which people rely to form their opinions and make decisions
  • Promote new mindset and behavior patterns
  • Provide frank, unvarnished feedback (candid observations, tough interpretations, Antabuse®-type responses[1], etc.)
  • Utilize “ethical ploys” that invite people to explore implications of their decisions, and actions that lie beyond what they anticipate
  • Continue to remind people that they can’t transform their organizations unless they are willing to transform themselves

10.  Engage difficult discussions.

From the Tough Conversations Series

As change practitioners, we spend a great deal of time learning skills that help us facilitate deliberations, guide conversations, and manage relationships with our clients. We hope things go smoothly and that both we and the client have relatively comfortable interactions as the change process unfolds. For the most part, we would prefer to avoid any tough, unsettling debates.

There are times however, when we find ourselves in situations where keeping everything smooth won’t yield the results we need. Sometimes we have to go into a zone that is uncomfortable for the other person. There is no other way, if we want to serve our client and create the value we agreed to provide.

When this happens, it’s important to have a blueprint, a process to help navigate the difficult waters. I’ve found that many change practitioners, however, don’t have a contingency plan for tough conversations (other than to avoid them as much as possible). As a result, they are surprised when they find themselves in one and often over-react by coming on too strong, or under-react by backpedaling as quickly they can. Neither is acceptable when facilitating major change.

What follows is a description of some of my lessons learned when dealing with particularly arduous client discussions. Tough conversations have many aspects to them. I’ll focus on what is relevant about being intentionally provocative in order to advance the client toward his or her desired outcome.

Pushing Limits

There are times in client interactions when it becomes necessary to determine whether the dynamics at hand are important enough to escalate the tension by becoming more provocative (intentionally pushing the client past his or her comfort zone) or whether you should let things remain as they are. This decision to become more challenging could go one of two ways:

  • Serve as a catalyst to help the client face critical issues
  • Raise his or her discomfort level so much that it threatens your working relationship

When you are at this point, consider your next step carefully. Although being more confrontational is risky, failure to do so might keep the client from addressing something that could jeopardize the project’s success. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, “Can I truly stay dedicated to the client’s best interest without intentionally prodding him or her past where either of us would prefer to go?”

What circumstances would necessitate a tough conversation? This is another of those junctures where each change practitioner has to find his or her own answer. Speaking for myself, I’ll say that if I’m not consciously engaging clients in uncomfortable conversation at least some of the time, it’s likely that I’m opting for pleasantries and financial security over doing my job.

Being a professional facilitator of major organizational change requires a wide range of communication styles. Some are informative; others are more supportive and nurturing; still others require pushing the edge and even exceeding what clients are used to and comfortable with. As professionals, we are there for clients to guide the change process and ensure they make informed decisions along the way. We can’t fulfill this obligation unless we are skilled at and willing to use many different ways of communicating, including those that are seen as bold to the point of sometimes being unpleasant for clients to experience.

Leveraging Explicitness and Intensity

As professional change facilitators, our role isn’t to ensure clients are comfortable; it’s to help them realize their change aspirations…sometimes despite their discomfort. As awkward as it is, there are some circumstances when change practitioners should intentionally create uneasiness in their clients to help foster realization.

Two levers can be used to increase another person’s level of attention to an issue he or she is reluctant to explore: explicitness and intensity. Used separately or in combination, these enablers can have the effect of advancing the other person’s awareness of the issues at hand. Unfortunately, discomfort is usually accelerated along with this positive result.

Let’s look more closely at these two mechanisms.

Increasing Explicitness

The more serious the implications for the client, the more important it is for the practitioner to fill in gaps, vividly state facts, be emphatic about conclusions, etc. so there is no misunderstanding of what you are saying. The purpose here isn’t to be harsh for its own sake; it is to be precise in proportion to the gravity of the consequences. When a client’s actions could jeopardize the success of a vital change initiative, it’s important to reduce the amount of work required for him or her to draw the proper conclusions, and fully understand the ramifications of what you are saying. This can only be done by communicating more explicitly.

Increasing Intensity

Ordinary conversation includes a spectrum of expression. This is conveyed by our tone of voice, body language, volume of speech, and other indicators. In situations where people feel strongly about a particular issue, the perceived passion, or “emotional charge,” of their speech usually increases. Volume, eye contact, hand gestures, motion, the angle of our body, our physical closeness to the other person…all can be used by the practitioner to increase the intensity of his or her communication.

The specific cues vary. One change agent may display intensity with concentrated, measured speech and a high degree of physical focus. Another may express it with animated motion, raised voice, and emotionally loaded words. Both are attempts to convey the importance of what they are communicating to their client.

The Bottom Line

To summarize, professional change facilitators must be willing to take on the role of provocateur when “sticky issue” discussions are necessary to further realization. The skill is not optional, and failure to do so when it is called for is a level of professional weakness that is unacceptable for seasoned practitioners.


Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] Antabuse® is a registered trademark of Wyeth-Ayerst Labs for a drug designed to assist recovering alcoholics. Once taken, any subsequent ingestion of alcohol within the next 24 hours results in dizziness, aching muscles, and nausea, which the alcoholic avoids by not drinking. Antabuse is not a subtle feedback mechanism; it’s a powerful vehicle for delivering direct, explicit, self-imposed consequences for failing to adhere to an important commitment. “Antabuse,” as used by Conner Partners, is a metaphor for relationships where one person asks for, and receives, direct, explicit feedback from another as part of the cost to succeed on the journey toward mastery.

Posted on: October 30, 2012 01:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

When and How to Apply the Provocateur’s Role

Categories: Provocateur, Understanding

If you are not functioning as a provocateur[1] when the need arises, you’re not doing your job. It’s as simple as that. You either don’t know enough about this profession to recognize what you are not doing, or lack the courage to perform as you know you should. (If you think this is too harsh of an indictment, please refer to my last post.)

From the very first post of this blog in 2009, and on a fairly routine basis ever since, I have made references to the provocateur’s role (though I haven’t explicitly labeled them as such). In some posts, I described what it was like to function as a provocateur; in others, I explored why we fall short of living up to this responsibility and I exposed what happens when we falter. In various ways, I’ve been writing all along about performing the provocateur’s role.

What follows are a few excerpts from previous posts where I raised provocateur issues without using the specific term. I have not included all the related references, but I hope there are enough here to properly highlight some of the inhibitors that tend to deter us from functioning as provocateurs when we should. I also address what we can do about them. By the way, I’ve taken the liberty of occasionally editing what was originally published so the connections to being a provocateur are as obvious as possible.

1.   Establish clear expectations.

From the Contracting Series

Given the critical role contracting (and recontracting) has in practitioner/client relationships and how basic the mechanics are (be clear about what you promise and then deliver or renegotiate before the due date), it is amazing that poorly established expectations and/or weak follow-through occur so often. Based on my observations, most of the problems change agents experience with sponsors are directly caused or exacerbated by inadequate setting and/or fulfillment of expectations.

Here are some circumstances where practitioners should invoke the provocateur’s stance but often don’t:

  • They engage change work without even attempting a discussion of desired outcomes, the means for achieving them, how the agent and sponsor will perform their roles and relate to each other, and/or the consequences if they don’t live up to the expectations being set.
  • They are intimidated by the sponsor’s personality, rank within the organization, sense of urgency about starting work on the project right away, etc. to the point that, after trying, and failing, to have a substantive contracting discussion, they begin work on the project anyway.
  • They feel unsure about what their role, or the sponsor’s, should be so they dodge anything specific about either one.
  • They doubt that the sponsor will agree to what role he or she should play, so they avoid the discussion.
  • They conduct the right expectation-setting discussions but use, or allow the sponsor to use, vague, equivocal, implicit, abstract, convoluted language when discussing expectation specifics.
  • They attempt to practice the craft in an environment where change facilitators are treated as “order takers” and are expected to do as they are told.
  • They overextend themselves by agreeing to more commitments than they can realistically deliver. 
  • They are seduced by how well-intentioned or busy the sponsor is and avoid saying anything about his or her unfulfilled promises.
  • They agree to expectations without having all the relevant information.
  • They consent to expectations under duress because they feel they have no option but to agree.
  • They agree to deliver something they don’t have sufficient influence over.
  • They fail to tell the sponsor as soon as they see that their ability/willingness to fulfill promises is in jeopardy.
  • They fail to give the sponsor feedback when he or she does not live up to promises made, or unilaterally changes what is expected of the practitioners.
  • They fail to ask to renegotiate expectations early enough so they can still meet the original obligation if the request is turned down.

2.   Keep your initiatives from becoming stuck.

From the Getting Unstuck Series

Initiatives routinely become stuck. Many times the problem could be resolved, if not prevented, if the practitioner took on the role of provocateur.

Here are some of the ways practitioners contribute to an initiative becoming stuck:

  • They try to address tough political, cultural, or personality-driven issues while at the same time attempting to keep everyone happy.
  • They accept more responsibility for an initiative’s success than the initiating sponsor does.
  • They try to resolve problems/opportunities by working on the symptoms instead of the underlying dynamics.
  • They fail to communicate what needs to be said (which, if said, would likely make a difference). There are two reasons practitioners fail to communicate:
    • They won’t. (They withhold what needs to be said.)
    • They can’t. (They are unable to convey what needs to be said and, therefore, are probably not the right person for the role.)
  • They fail to tell the truth. Change agents should strive to be truthful:
    • To themselves about themselves
    • To themselves about their clients
    • To their clients about themselves
    • To their clients about their clients
  • To be of value, practitioner truth-telling should be communicated in three ways:
    • With accuracy—correct, proper, just, and meticulous
    • With directness—straightforward, unequivocal, crisp, compassionate, and unambiguous
    • With understanding—empathetic, respectful, sensitive, and compassionate

3. Don’t be a victim.

From the Victimization Series

Many challenges and roadblocks hinder the successful execution of major change but few rival the obstructive power of victimization. Victimization is a disease that destroys the confidence a person needs to sustain a transformative journey, and it has reached epidemic proportions among not only targets, but sponsors and agents as well. Change practitioners are no less susceptible than our clients are, and we have no hope of battling the plague of victimization among our clients if we are carriers of the blight ourselves.

As I’m using it here, victimization is a mindset characterized by feeling trapped in negative circumstances with no option but to endure. It’s the antithesis of a person believing he or she has choices to make that can affect the outcome.

This mindset plays out in all aspects of life, but one of the most common forums is the work setting. Victimization on the job is not hard to spot. People prone to thinking and acting in this way exhibit some or all of the following tendencies:

  • They feel caught up in what they consider negative situations but are unwilling to pursue resolution strategies they think are too expensive.
  • They are easily intimidated around authority, withhold their true thoughts/feelings, and say whatever they think will bring favor from those in charge.
  • They have trouble determining what they want but hold others accountable for their frustration.
  • They blame other people or circumstances for causing the struggles they find themselves in and don’t see themselves as contributing to the problems or needing to generate solutions.
  • They prefer to gossip about people or problems behind the scenes rather than to directly address them through open dialogue.
  • They overreact to events and, in the process, burden people with their emotional immaturity.
  • They engage in covert retaliation as “payback” for the injustices they feel occur toward them, rather than overtly confronting the issues in a way that brings them to a conclusion.

Organizational change only makes things worse. Significant organizational initiatives magnify existing victimization and also stir up any predispositions that might have been lying dormant.

With change dynamics fueling the victimization fires, we have an obligation to examine our own culpability in spreading the victimization virus.

Our profession is a magnet for self-reliant types who think of themselves as “take no prisoners” independents but who then:

  • complain about clients without mentioning any of their concerns to them,
  • blame clients behind their backs for projects not going well, and
  • resign themselves to how little influence they have with their clients.

These are change practitioners who pride themselves on talking the talk about being direct and explicit with clients but then can’t seem to walk the walk when the opportunities actually present themselves.

How can we possibly be a useful resource in addressing our client’s victimization if we manifest some degree of the same affliction? Victims can’t administer to other victims except to participate in and foster the very sense of impotence that needs to be addressed. Our ability to assist clients with their victimization issues is in direct proportion to the extent to which we have faced them within ourselves. Professional and personal ethics require that we acknowledge our own victim vulnerabilities and learn how to manage them in ourselves and encourage the same with colleagues within our professional community.

4. Operate with integrity.

From the Trusted Advisor Series

Change practitioners must display an extremely high level of candor at all times. Among other things, this means:

  • Being honest with themselves and the sponsor
  • Speaking the truth with accuracy, directness, and understanding
  • Openly declaring their biases, intentions, motives, etc.
  • Being authentic
    • Maintaining congruency between what they think/feel and what they express/do
    • Embodying what they promote (being a model for what they suggest the sponsor should do)
  • Standing firm despite adverse circumstances
  • Maintaining confidentiality (whether it is overtly requested or they apply discretionary judgment)

Trusted advisors are expected to tell the truth regardless of the circumstances. Nothing short of complete honesty will allow them to fulfill the practitioner’s prime directive—to help the sponsor make informed decisions. Truth-telling should always be expressed with respect and kindness, but never at the expense of failing to convey their genuine perspective on a situation.

This means they can’t stop with being “merely accurate” in their exchanges. (This includes making statements that can later be defended as correct but that clearly lead the sponsor to a different conclusion than full candor dictates.) Sponsors will grant trusted-advisor status only to practitioners who consistently convey the truth of situations, not just accurate information.

5.   Relate to clients as a partner, not a vendor.

Unless a practitioner is straightforward, true partnerships with clients aren’t possible, leaving vendor relationships as the only option.

From the Sponsor/Agent Relationship Series

Change Agents Who Think of Themselves As...
Vendors Partners
Think it’s best to limit feedback/guidance to what the sponsor is comfortable hearing/pursuing Understand that feedback/guidance should include everything that needs to be addressed for realization to be achieved, regardless of how comfortable it is for the sponsor to hear
Believe it’s best to minimize risk visibility and keep a positive spin on progress Believe it is best to identify and acknowledge any substantive risk to realization early so mitigating action can be engaged
Think it’s best to promise whatever the sponsor wants even if it isn’t feasible Know it is best to work with the sponsor to jointly agree on realization outcomes after a sober comparison of the desired intent and the significant inhibitors that must be overcome

In my next post, I’ll continue with the last five things that inhibit practitioners from taking on the provocateur’s role, and describe what to do about it.

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] Unlike an “agitator” who intentionally stirs up trouble or a “pacifier” who seeks tranquility at all cost, the provocateur (as I’m using the term) focuses on helping clients recognize, acknowledge, and take action on the various “sticky issues” that inevitably arise when the status quo is disrupted significantly.

Posted on: October 23, 2012 04:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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