Every morning when we wake up, we stand in front of the mirror, fill the toothbrush with toothpaste, look into the mirror again and start to brush our teeth from the same spot. We move on to the next spot when we are done with the current one. Depending on the habit, it could be the one on top or the one on the right. We continue doing this until all the teeth are cleaned. The same teeth-brushing process is repeated every morning starting from the same spot and going through the same flow. We never know why we have to start exactly from the same spot or why we follow the same flow. It seems like our subconscious minds have registered the pattern and taken over the control. It is habitual. If someone now insists that we have to start brushing our teeth from a new spot and in a different direction, I am sure most of us will find it uneasy to adapt to the new method and will probably sink back to the old habit in no time. We loath at change and we curse at those that tell us to change.
So far, we are just looking at the habits of individuals. If habit is manifested on a grander scale, say organization, then what we are dealing with will be a cultural issue.
“If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
“Left well enough alone.”
“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
We have heard phrases like these echoed through the office corridors many times. Mark Twain once said – “Nobody likes change except a wet baby.” As much as we dislike those green-horned change agents, we abhor the bearers of bad news even more. We love sweet words and flattery, and turn a deaf ear to those who try to warn us.
In my previous article “Antemortem Confession of an Ant”, I wrote about a valiant ant who tried to warn the fellow ants that they might have been trapped in the ‘Spiral of Death’, but was eventually being dismissed as having a hallucinated fantasy. We have a special name for such people who are disbelieved when they try to warn others about something bad that is going happen. We call them ‘Cassandra’ – the name of the daughter of Priam, the King of Troy, who was both blessed with the gift of prophecy and cursed in such a way that no one would believe her warnings. You probably have come across a few Cassandras in your organization. Sad to say, there is a high chance that they are being thrown into isolation in one of the Gulag camps by now.
So, why do we shy away from bad news and warnings? Why we avoid Cassandras like the plague? Could it be ego, hubris or simply just being too timid to face the warnings? Perhaps, we may find an answer in a report issued by Richard Stevenson, Trevor Case, and Betty Repacholi called “My baby doesn't smell as bad as yours: The plasticity of disgust”. This report that appeared in the September 2006 issue of the journal “Evolution & Human Behavior” provides evidence suggesting that mothers regard their own baby’s fecal smell as less disgusting than that from someone else’s baby. This implies that we have a preference, or higher tolerance, for our own body odors and those from close kin over those from other people regardless of the intensity of disgust of the odors. Perhaps we have a similar inclination when it comes to warnings. We have higher tolerance for warnings that concern us and may tend to perceive them as less critical, thereby paying less attention to or even ignoring them completely.
Unfortunately, this does not imply that the warnings are less valid. The diaper will still get wet and we need someone to inform us when the diaper needs to be changed. In other words, Cassandras are invaluable to an organization. It is always a good thing to have a couple of them around. No matter how unpleasant they are to the ear, we may still need to rely on Cassandras’ warnings in order to help the organization to evade the potential pitfalls ahead. The price to pay for shunning them is too high. Instead, we may take the warnings in a positive light, perhaps as inputs to our continuous risk assessment process in projects. Have you identified any Cassandra in your team? Do you have an environment that will encourage them to voice up their opinions and warn the team of any looming danger?
Our minds have been infested by the adage ‘Customers First’ since the day we stepped into the society. We hardly doubted its truth. It is obvious, isn’t it? A company exists to serve the customers well so as to sell services or products to them in return for some profits. In order to achieve this grandiose objective, they have to put their customers in the first place isn’t it?
“No, employees first, customers second!” heralded Vineet Nayar, Vice Chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies, as he kicked off the seminar in Singapore in February 2011. Vineet was there to talk about how value is created in the new knowledge economy and how organizations leveraging information technology across industries can be transformed through disruptive management. This, according to Vineet, builds on top of the philosophy of “Employees First, Customers Second” (EFCS), an innovative management approach that empowers employees, drives passion in them, encouraging individuality and entrepreneurship, and moves the organization forward. Watching Vineet sashaying across the stage, passionately telling stories and giving examples to explain the philosophy of EFSC while characteristically waving his hands in the air to reinforce some of his points, was a great enjoyment. However, I wonder how many people in the audience are ready to embrace such radical management practices of confronting the truth, building trust through transparency, inverting the management pyramid by empowering the employees, and shifting the responsibility of change from top to bottom.
“Oh, wait a minute Vineet. Are you telling us to value someone that we are paying money to more than someone we are getting money from? This sounds crazy!” I heard a murmur in the audience. I must admit that I do have some reservations about the effectiveness of EFCS when I first heard about it. Let’s face it, the thought of ‘Customers First’ is so deeply ingrained in us that most people find it hard to shake off. It is just so common sense. What so good about giving the employees all the focus while paying less attention to the customers? How can this benefit the organization? We know that having a team of talents is half a battle won in this new knowledge economy, but placing them ahead of our valuable customers is another story altogether. Yet, the gargantuan success and growth of HCL Technologies over the past six years since the introduction of EFCS in 2005 is definitely not accidental. As I explored further into this, I started to see some light from another direction.
Let’s turn the table around and ask the question ‘What could be bad about putting Customers First?’ instead. In general, it is perfectly alright to have a customer-centric culture where the focus is on serving the customers well with their needs as top priorities. Things turn bad when people start worshipping the customers and treating them like kings. In such a culture, the employees will do everything to please the customers and satisfy their needs blindly regardless of whether there is real value in doing it. They behave like seamstresses who sew according to instructions instead of couturieres who design for the haute couture. In other words, they have given up the freedom to be creative and the opportunity to lead. Eventually, they are likely to end up as one of the followings.
I have collaborated with HCL Technologies in a couple of projects over the past few years. I wouldn’t say that they are flawless in their EFCS implementation, but at least they have a lot lesser employees that behave like the three types mentioned above compare to other vendors. On the contrary, I am fortunate to have worked with a few great people in HCLT who accept responsibility and take ownership with pride and step up and lead when the situation calls for it. “Employees First, Customers Second”, to me, is no longer just an interesting catch phrase. I am witnessing it in effect.
If you think that the best approach to implement change is a top-down-force-it-through authoritarian approach, then you are wrong. You don’t force people to change; you help them to change and make the process more enjoyable for them. If you believe that the best way to help people to progress through change is through communication, then you are again wrong. I am not saying that we do not need communication. In fact, substantial amount of communication is good to keep people aligned with the activities going on. However, over-communicating or hard-selling may have negative impact on the change implementation itself. Imagine if I keep telling you that there is a big change coming your way and you have to prepare for this and that, no doubt, I am prepping you up for the change but at the same time, I am also instilling fear in you subconsciously. In fact, I am amplifying the fear of change and giving you extra stress unnecessarily. Some people might argue that communication is the key to keep people out of the dark in any change implementation. Yes, I agree. I just don’t like those that have gone to the extreme in propagandizing it. In reality, the opposite is true – the best form of change takes place without people even noticing it.
Change should be like magic.
I love magic. I always marvel at the uncanny ability of magicians to pull a rabbit out of their empty hats. Do they have supernatural powers? “Abracadabra! And there you go.”, the magician has moved the coin from your pocket into his hand. The change was so swift that you didn’t even notice it had actually occurred. Isn’t this the best performing art of change?
Magicians are just normal people like us, but trained to read and manipulate human minds. They are the masters of deception and illusion. Their magic is nothing more than a series of finely honed actions crafted through in-depth understanding of human psychology. They exploit the weaknesses in human brain to create the illusion of performing the impossible. These days, even neuroscientists and psychologists have shown great interest in the tricks of the mind which have provided them useful insight into how the brain works. In general, there are three critical psychological techniques commonly used by magicians in their magic, and they are – misdirection, illusion and forcing (you may read more on these techniques in this article). Are we able to exploit these techniques in change management? Below are some of my suggestions to accomplish this.
I believe many of us have this experience where we tried to poke a straw into a packet of drink but no matter how careful we were, the drink just spilled out from the opening. For those who still unable to figure out the reason, this is due to the change in air pressure inside the packet of drink causes by the action of poking a straw into it. I have found out a way to minimize the amount of spill by first sucking through the straw while poking it gently into the packet which surprisingly able to keep the air pressure in balance, thereby preventing the spill.
Yes ‘suck it, poke it’, this is exactly what we should do when we push out changes in organizations. It is very common for us to encounter resistance and push-back in change implementation. When we bump into a wall, we should take a step back and try a different approach instead of keep charging at it with brute force. Just like the way we insert a straw into a packet of drink, we may have to ‘suck up’ to the resistance force first before we ‘poke it’ to forge the changes required. What is the point of winning a battle but losing a war? There is a Chinese proverb “Yi Tui Wei Jin” that says ‘retreat in order to advance’. Sometimes, we just have to do that.
It is natural for people to put up a defense wall immediately if you were to foray into their territories and try to overthrow their strongly-held beliefs and dismantle their long-practiced processes. No one likes changes. People hate to have their comfort zones disrupted. It just gets worse if there is any sentimental attachment in those things that you are taking away from them. Imagine yourself as an evangelist that embarks on a missionary trip to preach Christianity to an aboriginal tribe. If you try to force the concept of Christianity down their throats, you will probably find yourself tied to a tree the next day. You are setting yourself up for failure if you are moving in with a mindset to change people.
No, you don’t change people; you help them to change instead.
In order to achieve that, you must first become part of them. There is an old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Indeed very true. Insinuate yourself into the native tribe and be one of them. Nothing works better than being on the same side of the court. Psychologically, you will be able to lower down their defense and gain their trust. I am not saying that you have to change your job or move your office in order to blend into group. But what you do need, at a minimum, is a sympathetic ear that is able to empathize with the plight of others.
Build trust, influence and lead.
Build trust by showing that you understand their problems and care for their well-being. Many a time, people just need a channel for them to voice out their opinions. They want to be heard. Establish that channel. People will trust you more as they share more with you. It is like a self-reinforcing addiction. Once you have gained their trust, people will start to open up to you. They will be more willing to listen and accept your opinions. This is the right moment for you to extend your influence on them. You may make use of this opportunity to explain to them what they need to know and how the change will benefit them. Start slowly. Pace yourself well so that you do not impose too much pressure initially. Remember, you are there to help them to change and not force them to change. Once people have understood your intention and trust that you can help them, you may move on to lead them through the change. Share with them your vision, roadmap, what they need to do and how to do it together with you to achieve the ultimate goal.
Change, is all about the people you are dealing with…
I like the way King George was introduced to Jack Sparrow in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean 4. He was introduced as ‘George Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, Archtreasurer and Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Great Britain and Ireland’. Wow, what a lengthy title and definitely one that is not easy to remember.
While I was counting the number of characters in the title, I recalled a question that a colleague of mine asked some time ago – ‘Is the length of a person’s title related to the importance of the work he is doing?’ In my opinion, the straightforward answer is ‘No’. But if this is indeed the answer, then what could have possibly motivated people to create long and fanciful titles which are hard to remember? The closest explanation probably lies in a three-letter word – ‘ego’.
There is an ego elephant in every one of us.
They vary in size. Some of them are much larger than the others. Most of the time, they are innocuous and stay dormant just like any other elephants. But the truth is, they lurk in the dark, waiting for the right moment, the provocative words or the insidious remarks, to spring into action; and when that happens, nothing can stop them, not even you. They march on, seizing over the control while leaving you paralyzed under their feet. You look so vulnerable in the stampede. And yes, this is nothing new to you. It has happened so many times in the past despite your silent protests.
You bring them with you wherever you go; to the weekly project interrogation party or your favorite postmortem debate. In most of these internecine dogfights, it seems like the person with the largest ego elephant usually wins. Not that they are strong, but they are just too stubborn to admit that they are wrong. In order to reward them for their hard-fought victories, you feed them with flatteries, something that accelerates their growth. As they grow bigger and stronger, they start to obscure your vision and block your thought, which in turn makes them harder to be controlled. This is a vicious cycle. In no time, they will grow so big that you will have to take them out and hang them on your nose.
How can you manage ego elephants?
You do not measure leadership by the number of medals that hang in front of your chest (that’s ego); you measure leadership by the impact you have on the people that follow behind you.