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  • Gilbert Kruidenier

Things not said often enough in Change

Being honest to clients or leaders is not always easy. What if they fire you? It never happened to me yet, but it might. I’d like to think that if I got fired for being respectfully honest, I have no business in that business anyway. Even after years of being honest, sometimes painfully so, I’m still not comfortable with it and I think I would be more fun to be around if I lied a bit more.

Actually, I’d really rather lie most of the time. “That was a great meeting”, “I love that new logo”, Of course I can make this work”, “That’s a great name for your company”, “What an excellent idea”, “It’s fine that you’re late again”. We tell ourselves it’s okay to lie a little bit, because no one gets hurt and always being honest is risky for your health, career and job security.

So, what’s the alternative here? We just safely and conveniently lie ourselves through the day and think nothing of it? Sacrificing our values, principles and beliefs for a pay-check? In other words, when you sell your services, you’re actually -literally- selling all of you? Wow, I hope that’s not a conscious choice for most of us, but just something that slowly creeps in unnoticed.

My dad taught me that every time you lie, you lose a bit of self-worth, because you know deep down that it’s not right. And once you start, you can’t easily stop because you risk losing your dignity, credibility, trust, self-respect and in a strange turn of events, you can still lose that job that got you lying to begin with.

Professional life is no exception of course. It starts with us talking ourselves into a job sold by a person who only told half the truth of what really goes on in organisation X. As if it’s understood that you’ll find out later what the real deal is and somehow figure out how to make it work, that’s why they pay you the big (-ish) bucks! We play along and when we eventually find out what the real deal is, we don’t want to appear incompetent, silly or gullible, so we keep up the pretence that everything is fine. The perfect Abilene Paradox played out in an office near you. No one wants X to happen, but no one objects because they feel they are the only one not liking it. I call it the fear of being a party-pooper and if there were Olympics for it, I’d probably end up on the podium, be it reluctantly.

Most of us understand that lying is bad. And I am not talking about little white lies, but the ones where we know we should speak out and don’t. I propose we stop the unhealthy practice of truth-fudging to stroke egos or land/keep crappy jobs and find our way back to a more truth-based client-change adviser relationship by saying these ten things our clients sometimes badly need to hear when working through Change:

1. We both know this will not work, let’s try something else.

Three months in and nothing is happening, staff are disconnected, we keep losing the plot, deadlines are missed and no one even remembers what we set out to do on that off-site with the great snacks. Time to press pause, rest and start anew. It happens, such is life, own it, apologise, move on and try again.

2. Your culture is just fine, your leadership however is not.

You sit down with the client and they tell you that “we just need to change our culture and everything will be better”. Yeah right. No, what you need to realise is that this culture is the way it is for a reason and I am talking to it right now. How did you get to this point? This likely happened on your watch, so what needs to change other than people’s attitudes? Every once in while I see the light go on and a moment of self-reflection commences. Most of the time the conversation ends quickly after that and we part ways to never meet again, which works for both of us.

3. How about we start with the executive team?

Most changes I get called into always seem to involve things being done to staff. Be it a reorg, culture change, implementation or new business venture. Management want staff to change their behaviour so they can do this new cool thing. I then simply ask what they themselves plan to do. And you can see them think: “I know this one!” and out comes the clichéd “We’ll support them, facilitate them, provide resources, break down barriers”. I give it three more tries, putting more emphasis on THEMSELVES every time. When they finally realise what I mean, one of three things happen; Bewilderment (How do you mean? Surely, I don’t have to change, do I?), Anger (I am not the problem here, they are!) and Realisation (Damn it, you’re right, what can I do to show I am serious about this?). Only one out of these three has a chance of a good outcome.

4. This plan of yours is so immoral I’d call it evil, creative, but evil.

Picture yourself in a room where a group of people are trying to explain that through limited communication, misdirection and a selective use of convenient truths they will implement strategy X by the end of the year, consequences be damned because we have to make those targets and stay ahead of the competition/win/grow/be the best/get our bonus. The safe thing to do is to nod along and enjoy the show, but as you’ve already decided that this is not your next job, perhaps you can do us all a favour and share your views in a respectful way. You’ll not stop them all, but you might save a few from themselves and the abyss.

5. You do know that what you just said is a lie, right?

People sometimes prefer not to say what’s really going on, because they want to be the nice girl/guy, not get shot as the messenger, have a fear of confrontation or don’t want to worry people. Some reasons are better than other, however if we go along with that, what does that makes us? As change practitioners we are supposed to provide guidance and advice and it seems like “don’t lie or get creative with the truth” should be high on the list of ‘Things To Tell My Client’. People will forgive a harsh truth, but hardly ever a lie, especially if they find out it was intentional.

6. This is not change work, hire someone else, maybe a demo crew?

Ever got asked to come in and do a restructure where there has been little to no communication, people are walking around in a daze, there’s no budget and you have 3 weeks to make it all happen? Yeah, me too. I even tried it twice. Didn’t work, of course, after all, this had very little to do with change and the change that needed to happen was not what they wanted. It was a long walk back over all that scorched earth.

7. You don’t need me, you need a comms person

You sit and listen and the more you hear, the more you are convinced that people will not resist the change, they might actually enjoy it, if only someone would tell them what is going to happen. I’ve been in a few of these and of course we can do the job (CMs can do virtually any job, just ask them!) but they would be much better of if they hired a full-time communications professional. Once the information is out there, staff will make sense of it and the change will take care of itself. It’s one of those: “This is not good for me and my mortgage, but it is what’s best for you” kind of things.

8. Do you even believe in this change plan yourself?

These are the tricky ones, because the person selling you on the change is served by you getting involved and taking ownership. I’ve had it happen to me that I agreed to come in, only to have the person who hired me on announce two weeks later that they got the opportunity of a life-time and had to leave. Like, now. Sorry, good luck! Shame on me for being fooled because the signs are always there. No manager should be too excited about a change project and if your gut tells you that they are selling it too hard, it’s always a good idea to ask why they believe in the change so strongly. You’ll know in two or three sentences, which gives you plenty of time to start looking for the nearest exit.

9. Can we make it smaller?

Big change looks impressive, has dramatic flair and makes leaders believe they are tackling the whole issue while keeping things under control. I’ve yet to meet the change that can’t be sized down to safe and pilotable proportions, but I’ve also yet to meet the leadership team that started on time and erred on the side of caution because ‘everyone knows change needs to be big, complicated and hard for it to work, right? Right?!’ Wrong. If you start small and trial the change in a controlled environment, you create a case-study of home-grown success that creates a foundation for the big change to stand on. Good things come in small packages, remember?

10. I can’t do this, and neither can you, because it’s unrealistic

The shortest sales conversation I ever had was with an executive who told me that they were expecting the role to do a massive org change, part-time at peanut pay in a ridiculous timeframe with no real support team. I laughed out loud, thinking she was joking. She wasn’t. While the temperature in the room dropped about 25 degrees, she told me that I was clearly not the right fit for the job. I agreed and told her that it wasn’t going to work, but I heard Gandalf the Grey might be available. She didn’t like that much either. They are still looking. At least I got a good story out of it.

I get it, we all need to eat, pay bills and look after loved ones (incl. ourselves) and this will get you fired. Yes, I ‘missed’ opportunities (or lemons as I call them), but never once got fired. If anything, my execs found the honesty refreshing. If yours are different, why work for them?

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