I could not let the day pass without adding my humble tribute to the millions of more eloquent ones around the globe.
- A man whose vision transformed his 8×8 prison cell into a university.
- A man whose hope was undiminished during 27 years in prison.
- A man whose forgiveness earned him the trust needed to unite a divided country.
- A man whose courage led him to denounce the world’s superpowers in his fight for social justice
- A man whose perseverance changed his country and the world.
May our current leaders be inspired and aspire to the moral leadership Nelson Mandela exemplified. May they seek to unite rather than to divide.
I’m appalled by the antics in Ottawa right now. They erode trust faster than a wave on a sandcastle. But I want to know why it’s happening.
Why did the Conservative government draw attention to Senate expenses now? They had to know about lax and unequally applied regulations. They had to know that funding improprieties would draw questions about why the majority party has not made good on a party platform to abolish the Upper House.
Despite the sensationalism, why the focus on relatively small potatoes? Contracts for F-35s are worth $25 billion over 20 years. Cancelled gas plants in Ontario are in the neighbourhood of $500 million. Those are big scandal dollars. In the case of the Senate expense scandal we’re talking about $90,000 – $100,000. The audit has to cost more than that.
We have to ask: Why would a political party do this to itself? Why would it throw its own appointees under a very public bus? No one looks good in this scenario.
Today a headline in the Globe and Mail read, “The Senate drama: So lacking in good guys, it must be a European movie.”
Is it entertainment? Is it fiction “inspired by true events”?
Initially I wondered: While we’re watching the drama unfold, what else is happening? Are the expense allegations, backroom deals and “he said-she said” political prestidigitation – slight of hand to divert attention from something bigger? What is the Senate expense scandal hiding? Is it designed to change a conversation? This is a government that has been masterful and ruthless in controlling its messaging from its first days as a minority government in Ottawa. There’s no reason to believe they would change their approach now.
Is Stephen Harper the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain? Did he orchestrate the debate that has been raging for months? News reports are attracting crowds of Canadians around airport televisions. Office water coolers are buzzing with opinions. I’m all for public policy debate and interest in our political institutions. I think Canada needs far more of it, especially on constructive issues, but this feels off.
Then I remembered the first step of Kotter’s change management model: Establish a sense of urgency.
Is it possible that the Senate expense scandal is designed to spark public outrage over amounts that people can relate to? Then, the Conservatives could swoop in and communicate their vision for change, i.e., abolish or reform the Senate and build on the momentum.
Is it possible the accused Senators are collateral in a massive political drama/ communications tactic intended to manipulate Canadians? It wouldn’t be the first time that politicians created what psychologists call a “felt need for change.” In 1997, then minister of education and training, John Snobelen, was caught on video telling staff that “we need to create a crisis in education” to condition the electorate for major change. I’m sure other examples abound.
I don’t object to use of a proven change model. I’d argue it’s only ethical when it is an honest, transparent demonstration of compelling facts that move people to seek change. I applaud it if it prompts public policy debate that is about exploring ideas and not about tearing down people. I object when the “felt need” or “establishing a sense of urgency” is a red herring. I am outraged when the tactic erodes trust in our elected officials and in our institutions. The only possible bright side? People had to find out who their MP or Senator is and perhaps gave them a call or dropped them a line.
I hope I’m wrong. I’m not sure when I became such a cynic. For the record, I worked on Parliament Hill for years as a House of Commons page, a tour guide and a Parliamentary intern. I’m a fan of the Senate. The intent of the Upper Chamber is to represent regions and to balance the “representation by population” of the House of Commons. The Chamber of sober second thought is intended to introduce its own legislation and to study legislation sent to it from the House of Commons. Senators are not elected because the diverse group esteemed Canadians are supposed to tackle politically sensitive issues like euthanasia without the pressure of electoral cycles. But we’re being served a caricature of the worst stereotypes and it makes this girl wonder.
Navigating constant change is the not-so-new normal in organisations.
Political, economic, competitive even environmental pressures mean always doing more with less, responding to opportunities or avoiding threats. Despite the importance of implementing change successfully, leading change expert Dr. John Kotter has found that 70% of all major change efforts in organizations fail. Organisations throw huge resources at change initiatives only to have the momentum peter out. Too often, the gains simply never materialize.
In helping my current organisation communicate change I’m using Kotter’s 8-step model* and Roger D’Aprix’ Communicating for Change as my guideposts. Both outline the critical need to create a sense of urgency. In fact, it’s the first step in Kotter’s model.
Here’s the crux of my current conundrum: How do you a) convince leaders to b) create a sense of urgency without c) scaring people?
D’Aprix quotes an HBR interview with Lawrence A. Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signals. Bossidy subscribes to the “burning platform theory of change.”
“When the roustabouts are standing on the offshore oil rig and the foreman yells, “Jump into the water,” not only won’t they jump but they also won’t feel too kindly toward the foreman. There may be sharks in the water. They’ll jump only when they themselves see the flames shooting up from the platform… The leader’s job is to help everyone see that the platform is burning, whether the flames are apparent or not. The process of change begins when people decide to take the flames seriously and manage by fact, and that means a brutal understanding of reality. You need to find out what the reality is so that you know what needs changing.”
D’Aprix urges corporate communicators and leaders to establish a sense of urgency that is grounded in the marketplace, in competition, in customer demands so that even if employees, shareholders, customers or other stakeholders don’t like change initiatives at least they understand why they are required.
The paradox is that, while it is the first and essential step to successful change, leaders may resist candor, transparency and giving people the straight goods. They may fear that stating the challenges in stark terms to create a sense of urgency will alarm their audience. They may fear that admitting there’s a monster under the bed or stiff competition makes them look weak or out of control. They underestimate the intelligence of their audience and the value of plain language. They fail to appreciate that others also see complexity and will not fault them for making difficult choices or bold moves in that environment.
I’m a PR girl at heart so it’s a given that positioning and timing are important. I understand that there are stock market, media, employee engagement or political concerns but we should heed Kotter’s advice:
By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees. This error is fatal because transformations always fail to achieve their objectives when complacency levels are high” (Kotter, 2012, p.4).
Saying nothing until all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed (and they never are in fluid situations), may seem tempting or safer. But in the absence of information, people will speculate. You’ll still have to contain the market, political or media concerns but with less control over timing and content. You won’t get the extra effort needed to implement change. D’Aprix’ advice is to be constantly communicating openly about market pressures. That way, stakeholders understand the organisational context.
When convincing hesitant leaders to create a sense of urgency you can:
- Provide data and proven models (Shockingly, they don’t always take your word for it!)
- Encourage leaders to build trust by being transparent about the challenges they face and the choices they are making.
- Help them outline the vision that guides the actions required. People may be alarmed by the urgency but comforted to know that a plan is in place.
When you get approvals to proceed:
- Ground the need for change in your political, economic or competitive environment.
- Avoid euphemisms or sugar-coating facts. As Kotter puts it “Stop senior management happy talk” (p.46)
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Use as much face-to-face communication as possible and keep managers up to date.
Have you faced a similar conundrum? What worked for you?
* If you read this blog regularly, you know I like to cite my sources. I like to use approaches that are grounded in research rather than chase the latest tweet (although I read those too). When it comes to my professional work and my blog posts, I try to stand on the shoulders of giants or at least hang around their necks in a crazy piggy-backing attempt. Kotter’s Harvard Business Review article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail published in 1995 is among the most reprinted HBR articles. His book Leading Change was named on of the 25 most influential business books by Time magazine.
When I was out for a walk last night, a lovely family of four was biking along a path at the top of the hill on the horizon. Suddenly, the little girl – obviously a new rider of perhaps six or seven years old – fell off her bike. She didn’t even appear to wobble, the bicycle just fell to the side with her still on it. It was one of those moments that you feel in your gut rather than simply witness. Within seconds I could hear the little girl sobbing as the Mom knelt by her side. As I drew nearer I heard the Mom repeating loudly: “You were going too fast. You’re going to have to calm down. You need to be more careful.”
I can empathise that the mother was shaken but I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful was it to blame the child in this situation. If I put myself in the girl’s little shoes. (Which, admittedly is much easier as a bystander.) There were probably a jumble of thoughts in her mind that included ”this hurts,” ”that was scary”, ”why is Mommy mad at me?” and maybe “I did something bad”.
Notwithstanding perpetuating our culture of victim blaming, nothing in this exchange is going to help calm the little girl down. Nothing is going to cut through the immediacy of the feelings that override logic. Nothing is helping to assess the situation. Nothing is going to help her get back on her bike confidently.
Why not acknowledge what happened and the feelings of hurt or fear? Why not hug and comfort to build feelings of security and trust? (To be fair, the park Mom was hugging.) Why not ask the little girl how she is feeling and what hurts instead of telling her what she did incorrectly and what to do now? Asking questions instead of telling in this scenario does two things: the child has to calm down to answer coherently and participates in assessing what’s wrong. This way she can regain some control of herself and her environment.
This is not a parenting blog and I am a woefully imperfect parent; but the scene in the park made me wonder why we are so compelled to blame in our personal and professional lives. Blame seems like such a wasted emotion and behaviour. From ”the dog ate my homework” to governments blaming the policies of its predecessors for all their woes, blame is rampant.
It has no place in leadership. It erodes our own feelings of control. It erodes the trust of others. It diminishes the perception others have of us taking responsibility for our actions, for the actions of our team and of our capacity to take proactive steps where we can. Simply put, there is nothing constructive about blame.
Rather than expending effort on allocating blame, it’s more constructive in the short-term to:
- Acknowledge that a problem exists
- Try to view the scenario from the other’s perspective
- Assess the extent of the damage
- Learn what should be done differently in the future, especially for beginners
- Find a way to move forward or get back on that bike
As Henry Ford said: “Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.”
And please, wherever you are, do it with a little patience and compassion. We were all beginners once and generally, everyone is trying to do their best.
There’s a great scene in Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It’s immediately after the Confederate army has surrendered and crowds have gathered outside the White House waiting for Lincoln to speak.
“The crowd is crazy to touch President Lincoln, to see him, to hear his voice. They continue calling out to him, the chant getting louder until the sound is deafening… He hears the hurrahs, along with again the single loud cry in unison of “Speech.”
…Lincoln, at heart, is a showman… He has waited so long for this moment, and yet he must hold back. These words cannot be delivered impulsively. Nor can he hope to be bathed in applause after they are spoken.
…The people need to hear the truth, even though that’s not what they want to hear… Lincoln would like to indulge them. But sentiments are half-formed and the words not yet written.” (pp. 89-90)
In our time of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, how many leaders would show such restraint? How many would resist the urge to bask in victory, if only for a moment, in favour of telling hard truths?
Political and business leaders of Canada, no beach reads for you! Politicians, you have dragged trust through the mud this year: Robocalls and electoral fraud, negative and cynical ads, Senate expense scandals, construction kickbacks and municipal corruption, alleged crack parties. Come on! Shame on you!
Business leaders can’t be too smug either. Recently, SNC-Lavalin announced a three-month amnesty for whistleblowers. Ummmm… pardon?
You usually “make claims for damages or unilaterally terminate employees who voluntarily, truthfully and fully report violations” of your Code of ethics and business conduct? Why do you have a code of ethics if people cannot report breaches?
You can’t even trust the candy bar manufacturers. The people who make candy - for children – have been charged with collusion! (OK, I know, waaaay too many exclamation marks, but seriously!)
Give your heads a shake, it’s not like we have loads of trust to spare. According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer’s Canadian data:
- Only ten per cent of Canadians trust business leaders a great deal to make ethical and moral decisions. It’s eight per cent for government leaders.
- Only seven per cent trust business leaders a great deal to tell the truth regardless of how complex or unpopular the truth is – five per cent for government.
Your first assignment is to accept the need to change. Please familiarize yourself with this data.
Second, ease into some very general trust principles with the amusing trust fable in Trust Works! by Ken Blanchard, Cynthia Olmstead and Martha Lawrence. You could photocopy the very straightforward ABCD trust model and use it as your daily checklist. Please, make a copy for your staff and a little laminated card for your wallet. If the dog and the cat in this story can figure it out I know you can too.
Third, reach for both The Speed of Trust and Smart Trust by Stephen M. Covey and Greg Link. These are longer but I know you can do it. You set public policy for 35 million people or run multi-million dollar companies. The examples are timely, the quotes inspirational and the research pertinent and easily digestible. If you need the Coles-notes, here’s a summary I wrote on Smart Trust last year.
Finally, tackle two articles that provide something a bit more academic. The first illuminates how ethics should be at the very heart of your operations and how to know if you’ve strayed from the ethical path. It’s Hosmer’s 1995 article Trust: The connecting link between organizational theory and philosophical ethics in the Academy of Management Review.
Finally, top it all off with Reinhardt Bachman’s essay Future directions in trust research. It outlines why we have to move from viewing trust as a relationship between two people that takes time to build towards building system-wide trust that will have broader impact in this crisis of trust.
C’mon, find a comfy chair. Sharpen your pencil. Grab your reading glasses. You can even sip a cold one while you read. Show us how much you’ve learned come September. If you’re in the mood for more, you can always check out my trust bibliography.
What’s on your reading list this summer? What’s your ‘go to’ book on trust?