Threshold of an Opportunity

June 3, 2022

The fractured discourse in society over race, abortion, guns, politics, public health, and many other things threatens the fabric of what makes this country so great. We used to respectfully disagree and continue to be united as citizens. Now we are dangerously polarized. Where once we could compromise, now there is only me or you, win or lose.

E Pluribus Unum translates as “out of many, one.” This is emblazed across the scroll clenched in the eagle’s beak on the Great Seal of the United States and originates from the concept that out of the union of the original Thirteen Colonies emerged a new single nation. Today there are Red states and Blue states.

We are in a liminal space: between what is and what is to come. The word liminal translates from the Latin word “limi,” which means threshold. Our society may be leaving one way of life behind and transitioning to something altogether different.

Businesses are facing a liminal space too. How do they entice employees to return to the workplace? The great resignation has morphed into workers demanding more control over when and where they do the work. Leaders are challenged to find a way.

“A leader’s primary role is to create the future,” says Mark Miller, author of Smart Leadership: Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact. “Our vision for the future should never be an extension of the present or a return to the past. Normal is the realm of a manager who sees his or her role as controlling what is. The leader, by contrast, doesn’t want to control—she seeks to release the potential of her people and her organization. There is nothing normal about a preferred future. Without the liminal space, escaping normalcy is unlikely, and so is a better tomorrow.”

It is important for leaders to see this liminal space as an opportunity. Reflect on the changing times and the abundance of possibilities for those who embrace rather than resist it. Create a vision for the future. Release the potential of your people and of the organization.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a recognition that a change in the workplace is necessary. Consider the rise of union organization, demand for accountability on climate change, #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs.

Many corporations may have to: shift from overly rewarding CEOs and shareholders at the expense of employees and customers; challenge the assumption that the reason for all white males on the leadership team and boardrooms is because there aren’t qualified woman and people of color; provide a ROWE (Results Only Work Ethic) environment where only the work results are measured and not the time in an office cubicle.

Look at this liminal space not simply as a time to address problems but to embrace the opportunities.

“In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems,” wrote Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. “Nowhere is this more important than in respect to people. The effective executive looks upon people including himself as an opportunity. He knows that only strength produces results. Weakness only produces headaches—and the absence of weakness produces nothing.”

At this threshold between what was and what will be, leaders must courageously embrace what is possible and move forward. This liminal space is the launching pad for transforming the old ways of working to meet the new challenges of today. Our future depends on it.

Successful Behavioral Change Linked to Values

September 23, 2015

Nothing will make people change their behavior—no matter how detrimental—until they can see how it is in conflict with their own value system. That alone motivates us toward successful change.

As a leadership coach working with mid-level managers, directors and C-suite executives, much of my work is helping clients change their behavior in order to become more effective leaders. And changing one’s behavior is hard work.

That’s because our behavior is a part of our identity and we defend it by saying it has worked for us to this point. Why change?

Besides, we don’t have to think about our behavior; we simply react. Therein lies the problem. Instead of reacting, we need to take time to respond.

Reacting is action without thought. Responding is action after thought. Unless you’re on the basketball court with the shot clock running down, you probably have a few moments to contemplate your response before acting. Take this time to contemplate your usual behavior, and then perhaps alter your natural and instinctual way of reacting to respond more appropriately.

But this resistance to change is also deeply rooted in our individual value system.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith wrote: “We obey this natural law: People will do something—including changing their behavior—only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.”

Our values ultimately guide all our actions and they largely determine the decisions we make. Therefore, as a coach, it’s important for me to identify those behaviors that are out of alignment with the leader’s values in order to secure buy-in.

Goldsmith found that the higher one goes in an organization, the more his or her issues are likely to be behavioral.

In fact, he lists more than 20 such behaviors that even the greatest leaders need to stop doing in order to be more effective. These include things like: 5) Starting with NO, BUT, HOWEVER; 9) Withholding information; 16) Not listening; 17) Failing to express gratitude.

These detrimental behaviors often remain hidden because, while they may be obvious to others, they can be a blind spot for the leader. And we have become very adept at seeing only our best selves.

We judge ourselves based on our intentions and we judge others on how they make us feel, according to social psychologist John Wallen. This disconnect from seeing how our behavior impacts others can keep us from being aware of our blind spots.

The blind spot is an area a coach can help uncover and provide a roadmap for how to change. Results from a 360 analysis and other assessment tools enable the leader to gain perspective and challenge his or her previous assumptions. After seeing and accepting the data, he or she must then commit to the behavioral change.

Without this commitment, no measurable improvement is likely to occur. That’s because no one can make us change our behavior unless we want to. And that’s why the direct link must be made to the individual’s own values.

This link to our own sense of who we are and what we represent motivates us to change like nothing else. When a coach points out how the detrimental behavior is in direct conflict with the leader’s own values, it can help fire up the desire and commitment to make the change.

Integrity is a word thrown around a lot in job interviews and on corporate value statements, but to really live with integrity means to act according to the values, beliefs and principals you claim to hold dear.

You cannot behave in a way that is counter to those values, beliefs and principles without the risk of jeopardizing your integrity. Your behavior is therefore a direct reflection of just how much integrity you truly have.

When our behavior undermines our leadership effectiveness, it’s time to see and accept the compromised connection to our values, and commit to change. Only then can we succeed in making real change in our behavior that will lead to a successful outcome.

Organizational Behavior: Monkey See, Monkey Do

September 4, 2012

All too often I find organizations do things a certain way not because it’s the most effective or efficient way to do them, but because they’ve always been done that way.

This is not a recipe for success. In fact, this inertia may be what keeps organizations from growing and thriving more than anything else.

In a famous experiment by G. R. Stephenson back in 1967, five rhesus monkeys were placed in a cage with a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling. Underneath the bananas was a ladder just tall enough to reach them. Any time a monkey tried to climb the ladder to reach the bananas, cold water would spray the entire cage. The monkeys quickly learned it was better to avoid the ladder and give up on getting bananas.

When one of the monkeys was removed and replaced with a new monkey with no prior knowledge of the sprayer, all the other monkeys would attack the new monkey if it attempted to climb the ladder. Even when the sprayer was removed, this made no difference as the monkeys never tested it again. The new monkey has no knowledge as to why it was attacked, yet when another original monkey is replaced, even that previously new monkey will attack the new one if it tries to climb the ladder.

When all of the original monkeys are replaced one-by-one with new monkeys who have no previous experience of the sprayer, they continue attacking any monkey who attempts to climb the ladder. They all obey the same rules of behavior even though none of them have any firsthand experience as to why.

A great deal of corporate policy is formed and followed in this way. Employees continue doing things in a certain way even when there is no logical reason for it. When new employees are brought in and question things with suggestions for change, the entire organization resists the change even though it may be in everyone’s best interest to accept it.

Behavior is strange in this way and is often dictated by what the organization rewards or punishes—even if the original reason for the rule is entirely forgotten.

Leaders of organizations who recognize this problem and actively work to correct it are those who are open to learning and embracing positive change. The first step is for them to acknowledge those policies and procedures that hold the organization back. It then takes a great deal of perseverance to continually monitor behavior and acceptance of individuals to freely question practices that do not make sense.

This also takes a great deal of patience in order to continually defend these policies. But if you can no longer easily defend a policy or procedure then it likely cannot be sufficiently supported and should be ripe for modification or abandonment altogether.

Though it is often easier to continue doing things in the same way because they’ve always been done that way, organizations that encourage questioning these practices and enabling them to be modified are those that will grow and thrive.

Moving Beyond Organizational Stagnation

February 14, 2011

Change is the only constant in life, as the saying goes. And this paradox carries with it a monumental truth most of us are unwilling to embrace.

There’s good reason for this: Studies in personality development show that individuals are most open to new ideas and change in their 20s, but this continues to decline as we age. And the pattern apparently holds true across cultures.

Organizations also appear to go through a similar growth phase in that when they are just getting started and growing, they too are open to new ideas, new opportunities, new markets, etc. As they get older, however, they are slower to embrace new ideas as well as opportunities for change.

Many of these organizations become resistant to changing the status quo and then become stagnant. Moving from this stagnation requires helping people inside the organization feel the urgency to change by revealing a truth.

This is because people change what they do less because they are given analysis to shift their thinking than because they are shown a truth to influence their feelings, according to change management guru John Kotter as I referred to in an earlier post.

But just how do you go about revealing a truth that influences feelings?

To do so requires looking beyond quantitative data in spreadsheet analyses, visually engaging PowerPoint presentations, and newly minted vision statements with no connection to an organization’s values.

Recognizing stagnation often results when organizations complete a full analysis of quantitative data to reveal loss of market share, increased competition, lowered productivity and/or profitability, etc. Very few organizations, however, analyze the emotional side of stagnation and this is just as important in order to implement a successful change initiative.

Successful change requires focusing on employees’ emotions and behavior as much as it does on operational issues, according to Jeanie Daniel Duck, author of “The Change Monster: The Human Forces that Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation & Change.”

To thoroughly understand the root cause of stagnation means conducting a complete analysis of internal and external qualitative data, says Duck. This qualitative data includes the emotions underlying the numbers because these feelings reveal what the culture both inside and outside the organization contribute to the stagnation.

Only when organizations recognize and diagnose the extent of the emotions rooted in the stagnation can they then focus on solutions to bring about lasting change.

Gathering this emotional data requires truly listening to people. Without getting defensive or trying to set the record straight, it’s important to fully understand the unique perspectives of employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. This is especially hard for leaders who often know or think they know the organization for what it is.

But what leaders know or think they know doesn’t matter. Regardless of the leader’s perspective, it is the perception both internally among employees and externally among customers, suppliers and shareholders that matter here.

This is because one cannot correct misperceptions by simply denying or making a case against another’s perspective. To succeed, one must first understand this other perception of reality and measure how pervasive it is. Once that is determined, then you can figure out how to rectify it.

Stagnation is only the first of five dynamic phases in the Change Curve that Duck outlines in her book. This phase is vitally important because no change can begin without a thorough recognition and diagnosis of the stagnation in order to move forward.

The monumental truth regarding the constancy of change will be fully embraced only when we fully accept it in our hearts as well as our heads.

President Obama and Effective Change Leadership

October 12, 2010

Nearly two years after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on the promise of hope and change, many Americans are reportedly disappointed that hope and change hasn’t yet reached them.

Fair or unfair in this assessment of his first 20 months in office, I believe there are lessons to be learned in terms of effective change management. And though this is not meant to be a political blog, I believe there is much to be learned in the politics of business and the business of politics.

According to John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, best-selling author and widely regarded as an authority on leadership and change, “great leaders help people get in touch with their own aspirations and then help them forge those aspirations into a personal vision.”

In Kotter’s 1996 book “Leading Change,” the author provides a step by step process for successful change initiatives. Though our government is not run the same as a business, there are definitely lessons that can be learned from the business world with regard to implementing effective change.

Kotter’s Eight-Stage Process

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Creating the guiding coalition
  3. Developing a vision and strategy
  4. Communicating the change vision
  5. Empowering employees for broad-based action
  6. Generating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating gains in producing more change
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture

The central challenge in every one of Kotter’s eight steps is in changing people’s behavior: what people do and the need for significant shift in what people do. Changing this behavior is not a matter of more analysis to influence their thoughts as it is helping them see a truth to influence their feelings.

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings,” says Kotter.

President Obama is often perceived as overly cerebral and perhaps that explains why he primarily focuses on analysis in order to shift thinking. Unlike his predecessors Bill Clinton and especially Ronald Reagan, I believe Obama has been less successful in presenting truths to influence the kind of feelings necessary to accelerate change.

In spite of the deep domestic recession and two unpopular wars he inherited, Obama has made significant changes in financial regulation, health care and troop removal from Iraq. Republican resistance to these changes has focused on their belief that the first two of these changes are too far reaching and expensive.

The rising popularity of talk radio and sensational television news programs rely heavily on emotion with little hard facts or balanced analysis to support what may or may not be a truth. Regardless, the feelings provoked are what motivate change and that change may now mean a dramatic shift in congress with the upcoming mid-term elections.

In Kotter’s eight stages, it seems there are steps Obama may have skipped. What Obama did so well during his campaign was in developing a vision, but the strategy is where he may have fallen short once elected. Communicating a vision for hope and change—which he also did well during the campaign—seems to have little resonance after nearly two years in office.

One could certainly make an argument that Obama should also have established some shorter term wins than financial regulation and health care reform but, of course, he needed to play the hand he was dealt and that included some unpopular decisions during a crisis and in a very divisive environment.

In Kotter’s later book “The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations,” he states that successful change leaders need to employ the see-feel-change method.

See – Identify the problem or solution to a problem and enable others to visualize this in a way that creates a change in behavior.

Feel – Dramatize and make a compelling image that catches people’s attention, and ensure that this results in feelings that include passion, faith, trust, pride, hope, excitement, enthusiasm, urgency and/or fear to necessitate needed change. Emotions that can undermine change include anger, false pride, pessimism, arrogance, cynicism, panic, exhaustion, insecurity and anxiety.

Change – Different feelings—a change of heart—are what transform behavior. “The feelings change behavior,” says Kotter. “And with this change people are able to move through the eight necessary stages of large-scale change despite often huge difficulties.”

Obama was so effective at the see and feel parts during his presidential campaign, but navigating the challenges of governing with a fiercely divided congress during a time of war and recession has proved especially difficult. Perhaps revisiting Kotter’s eight stage process as a guide, Obama can then reclaim his leadership skills to affect the kind of change this country so desperately needs.

Leadership & Effective Change Initiatives

April 29, 2010

Change management initiatives are necessary for organizations to remain competitive in our rapidly evolving economic climate. These initiatives are extremely important, yet the majority of them are considered failures.

Recent surveys of chief executives from major corporations say up to 75 percent of their organizational change efforts do not deliver promised results. Overall, a full two-thirds of change management initiatives fail all together.

Since the pace of change in organizations is increasing daily, there is no better time to understand how organizational change initiatives can become more effective. The short answer is stronger leadership.

According to leadership expert and author John P. Kotter in his book “Leading Change,” there are eight common errors firms make when implementing change:

  1. Allowing too much complacency
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Underestimating the power of vision
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 or more
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
  6. Failing to create short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture

None of these errors alone would be all that consequential in a slower-paced, less competitive environment, but since the speed of change will only continue to increase addressing these concerns is of extreme importance.

All of these reasons for failure can be summarized by a lack of strong leadership. In fact, “ineffective change sponsorship or leadership” at the executive level was cited as the primary reason for failure in numerous research reports by Prosci, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly and others throughout the past decade.

According to this research, the top three reasons for failure with change initiatives were:

1. Ineffective change sponsorship or leadership from executives
2. Employee resistance
3. Poor support and alignment with middle managers

Before any organizational change effort is initiated, it is vital for the leader to fully understand the scope of his or her commitment and involvement. Organizational change efforts succeed only when the leader is 100 percent committed and thoroughly embraces the effort required for its success.

Kotter’s eight-stage process for successful change initiatives is a solid blueprint for leaders to model. To succeed the leader must follow each of these stages and stay fully committed and present throughout the process.

A 2002 McKinsey Quarterly study of 40 banks, manufacturers, hospitals and utilities titled “Helping Employees Embrace Change” revealed that of the companies that were successful in their change initiatives, all shared the following attributes:

  • All levels of the organization were involved from the very beginning
  • Responsibilities were clear
  • Reasons for the change were clear to everyone

Change takes time because employees need to move through their own stages of denial, resistance, exploration and finally commitment. Management must therefore be patient and recognize that every employee needs to go through each phase at his or her own pace.

This may seem to contradict the sense of urgency required to bring about change in the first place, but not if everyone is involved from the very beginning. Resistance from employees diminishes in direct proportion to the openness from upper management. By keeping all employees aware of the plan from the start and by giving them a clear and compelling vision of the future, a leader can help bring them on board with the change.

Most of us don’t like change of any kind and it is natural to resist because change often brings on anxiety by disrupting the status quo. This is true in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. However, change is inevitable and therefore we must all find ways to enable effective change to succeed.

Leaders must be extremely vigilant in every step of a change initiative because they most directly determine whether it is successful or not. Their guidance and stewardship throughout the process is more important than anything else.

Mark Craemer