This month’s guest, leadership consultant and executive coach Aaronde Creighton of Pique, shares why and how to be your true self at work when you’re leading change. Leave the mask at home and let your real leadership show up!
Relative to the people who need to change the way they work, those who are trying to implement that change often are not in a position of authority. For example, the human resources director responsible for implementing a new performance management system is not the manager of everyone who will adopt the system. As a result, the HR director and other change agents must influence change without relying on authority to get it done.
People who have authority are able to influence in a way that people without it can’t. In a typical hierarchical organization, the people with authority are those leaders who are higher up on the org chart, who manage people who work for them, and who control the resources required to do the work. While these exclusive privileges give leaders a crucial function during change, you can still accomplish similar ends without relying on authority yourself – and you may even be more effective without it.
Choose to Make a Difference
We naturally expect people in positions of authority to make improvements to whatever part of the organization they have authority over. Those who don’t have authority may tell themselves it’s not their place to try to change things, especially in someone else’s area. However, the first step in influencing without authority is choosing to make a difference anyway, and not waiting for someone to let you.
Ask, Don’t Tell
Have you ever been in a meeting where a leader made an off-hand comment about something they’d like to see, and suddenly everyone is working to make it happen? People who have authority can direct people what to do, even unintentionally. When you don’t have authority, you can’t tell people what to do. Instead, make clear requests, and invite people to help. Also, appeal to their interests and help them see the need for change.
Help People Be Accountable
People with authority can hold people accountable by setting expectations, judging performance, and doling out consequences. Without authority, you have to help people be accountable instead. Work to clarify what someone will accomplish or do, and gain agreement on how you can help support their commitment. In the absence of carrots and sticks, find the real consequences of achieving or not achieving the goal. And remember that thanks and recognition can come from anyone.
Rely on Your Relationships
The relationship between a leader and those they lead is unique. Because their authority defines the relationship, leaders have strong influence. When your peer is suddenly promoted to be your boss, the relationship changes, and so does the way you influence each other. Collegial relationships, on the other hand, have the benefit of being voluntary. Without authority, you can rely on your relationships with people who know, like, and respect you, and who won’t feel coerced when they fulfill your request.
By definition, influencing by using authority is authoritarian. It assumes people will fall in line with the wishes of leaders. And while there is something in all of us that complies with authority, we despise it as well. Those who could rely on authority to influence change might do well to avoid leaning on it. When people are influenced without authority, they are more likely to feel like change was done with them, and not to them.
Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance, returns to the show to discuss how to gain support for change, especially how to move people from being grumblers to becoming allies using a tool called The Energy Bar™.
You can watch a 3-minute video about using the Energy Bar here: http://www.rickmaurer.com/energybar/
In the last post, Five Signs Your Team is Avoiding the Truth (Or Other Uncomfortable Topics), I shared some of the ways you can tell if you team is hiding an undiscussible topic. If the topic is one that needs to be addressed in order for the change to move forward, then you especially need to get people to talk about it! Now, I’d like to share some tips for how to get your team to discuss those undiscussible topics.
First of all, you have to know why people avoid discussing what they need to discuss. Here are a few common reasons:
- Conflict avoidance – for example, broaching the topic means calling someone out on their behavior or results
- Vulnerability – discussing the topic means admitting weakness
- Conformity – they want to go along with everyone else
- Safety – they don’t want to be wrong, contradicted, belittled, denied by the group
- Retribution – they fear someone might get back at them later
- Waiting – no one wants to be first to talk for fear of being thrown under the bus.
As a facilitator of change, you must create a safe space to discuss topics that are uncomfortable. The following are a few ways you can bring the topic out of hiding, shine a light on it, and get the team to effectively address it.
Address It Individually
If the undiscussible is someone’s behavior on the team, like a leader who won’t listen to others’ ideas, or someone who is passive aggressively resisting change, it is probably best to address the issue one-on-one. Bringing up one person’s behavior in front of the group is likely to make them defensive. It won’t seem safe to them when they feel like they’re being attacked. Instead, provide feedback in private, and work to gain agreement on the issue and the resolution. Determine together if you’ll acknowledge the issue openly to the team, or if you’ll create secret signals for when they’re crossing the line in meetings.
Develop Ground Rules
Gain agreement from the group about how it will work together, especially around difficult topics. Create ground rules for meetings that will help create a safe environment, like “Be curious rather than defensive,” or “Avoid blame.” Then, facilitate the meeting by reminding people of the rules when necessary.
Just Say It
Sometimes someone just has to be the courageous one to bring it up. Be the first to say what everyone is thinking. You can even say, “It feels like we’re avoiding X topic,” or ask, “What are we avoiding?” and see what happens. Remain in the awkward silence until someone speaks up. Don’t give people a pass to avoid the issue.
Make It Hypothetical
To make it a little safer, bring up the issue in a hypothetical sense. For example, if the team is avoiding talking about potential risks, you may ask, “If there were something that could stop this project from succeeding, what would it be?” Challenge people to come up with other options that conflict with the prevailing denial of the team.
Ask What’s True
If someone brings up a topic that is batted down immediately, pause the conversation. Ask, “What might be true” about the statement. Or again, ask hypothetically, “If it were true, what would be the implications to the project?”
As a change facilitator, one of your key roles is to make meetings effective for addressing what needs to be addressed. Sometimes this is uncomfortable and teams would rather avoid it. You can make the undiscussibles safe to talk about by fostering an environment of curiosity and trust.
Implementing change at work requires facing the truth and discussing uncomfortable topics. For example, you might have to share that the change will have negative repercussions for certain stakeholders. To adequately assess risk, you may have to admit the possibility that the change won’t work. Or, you may need to help leaders see the behaviors they must change in themselves for the project to be successful. Because change draws people out of their comfort zones, it naturally creates the potential for uncomfortable conversations!
Interpersonal dynamics and human nature can make it difficult to talk about what needs to be talked about in a team environment. We strive for harmony rather than create conflict. We don’t speak up because we don’t want to be shot down or ridiculed. We avoid imagined retribution. As a result, we ignore or hide the issue rather than bring it up to talk about it. Unfortunately, you can’t fix a problem no one will admit exists.
If you’re an outsider trying to facilitate change within a group, this smokescreen can make it difficult to know that something isn’t being discussed. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs teams are avoiding a topic.
When the topic comes up in a meeting, suddenly everyone is silent. Usually the silence is accompanied by staring at the table or ceiling, sudden checking of phones, and sideways glances amongst members of the group. If you take silence as agreement, the meeting goes on without an important discussion.
The Conversation Changes Depending on Who Attends
The topic is only uncomfortable in the presence of certain individuals. Perhaps it’s a touchy subject for one person, so the team avoids talking about it when he’s in attendance. Maybe the team wants to save face in front of a leader, so they don’t admit potential problems. Or perhaps the problem is the leader herself and the way she is ineffectively leading the change. If the tone or the topic changes when someone is absent, you’ve found an undiscussible issue.
When the issue comes up, one or more team members vocally deny that it needs to be discussed. Either they claim it’s not a problem, or they insist on working on it outside the meeting. If the topic or idea is immediately batted down without consideration by the team, you may have found a topic that the batter would prefer to withhold from team discussion.
The Meeting After the Meeting
While the topic is avoided within official team meetings, the discussion happens in smaller, informal meetings instead. Although the topic is uncomfortable within the larger group, subsets of the team feel safer with each other and talk about it amongst themselves. These “water cooler” conversations are a sign that the larger team is avoiding the subject.
The Same Meeting Repeats Over and Over
Another indicator of an undiscussible topic is that the team doesn’t seem to be making any progress. Because they keep dancing around the real issue, a problem goes unsolved. Since people don’t feel heard (because they’re not speaking up), they aren’t committed to the work, so they don’t complete their tasks between meetings. If the team meets for weeks with the same agenda, there’s probably an important discussion missing from the list.
What can you do when it appears the team is avoiding an uncomfortable topic? In a nutshell, you have to acknowledge the issue and create a safe space to discuss it. Watch for a future article that details what you can do to surface these uncomfortable subjects with your team.