Thursday, June 7, 2012

Change Agents Must Get Personal

Executive Summary:
Real change doesn’t happen just because we reorganize and declare a new initiative.  Change occurs with behavior, which requires leadership and interpersonal influence.  To influence change, agents must address change at a personal and interpersonal level.

The Rest of the Story:
We have all experienced it.  Our leadership gets an idea to drive some new way of doing business or driving process improvement and the business gets reorganized, management gets new orders, and some people, if not everyone, gets some training.  Then we are told to go forth and make the new way happen.

So we start using a new vocabulary, and maybe some of our metrics change, but in the end, the results we were promised don’t manifest.  So, our leadership takes action, primarily focused on the middle management.  Those who obviously disregarded or challenged the new way are reprimanded or eliminated.  Others who were caught giving lip service, but not truly buying in are given similar attention.

Still, the results promised don’t manifest.  Eventually, the debate over whether the new way even works runs tired and we either decide that it doesn’t or that the results we have are the best we are going to get.  Finally, our leadership either reads a new book, or it changes over and a new declaration for a new future is made and the cycle starts over again.

I’m sure that, even as over-simplified as my description is, it sounds familiar to just about everyone.  Why is it that these programs and initiatives and ways of driving success seem to work for the founders, and for a few rare businesses that follow the founder’s methods, but fail so often for the rest of us?

Fundamentally, the change never takes place.  Yes, we reorganize, and we address management directives, and even management personnel, but the change doesn’t occur.  In the end, the business is still doing business as usual.

Consider this.  If I reorganize your business so the people are reporting to different leaders, does that fundamentally change how they do their work?  No.  If I give orders to your management to track new metrics and to use a new vocabulary, does that make the people do their work differently?  Not fundamentally.  If I give everyone in your business a week’s worth of training, does it make a person do his or her work in a different way?  Not necessarily or probably not.

What does make everyone in the business start to do things differently?  (play game show music here)  The clue is in the words, “the way we do work.”  To some degree we can change people’s “ways” by changing process.  However, not all work is governed by strict process.  Most office work is not.  “Ways,” is another way of saying “habits” or “tradition” which are all words that are intimately tied to behavior.

I choose the word behavior very specifically.  Here are some dictionary definitions so you can see why.
  • The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, esp. toward others
  • The way in which a person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus
  • The way in which a natural phenomenon or a machine works or functions (think process)

Behavior governs how we act, or decisions, or responses, and ultimately how we do our work.

If it is our business cultural behavior or habit to focus on doing things quickly and in the easiest manner possible, would a reorganization and management directive cause everyone in the business to suddenly focus on predicting stability or making long-term decisions about quality?  We may have new metrics and vocabulary, but the habits don’t change just because we gave a week of training and went back to work.

Habits and behavioral change take place because of pressure to change.  That pressure can come in many forms.  As change agents, we can help the leadership plan those pressures through process change and leadership expectations, but we have only one real pressure available to us in our daily or hourly work.  That is our interpersonal influence.  The good news is, it is a very powerful pressure.

Interpersonal influence is also that part of the equation that is lacking in most change plans that focus only on reorganizing and making management directives.  Those fail because they don’t address the interpersonal level of change, which, of course, is where the real change happens.

Change contexts.  Changes in personal fitness are often much more effective with the incorporation of fitness coaches or workout buddies who hold us to our commitments.  Weight loss works much better if our spouses and families are on board with the change in diet; it fails readily when they are not part of the change.

The same phenomenon happens in the workplace when driving behavioral change.  Saying that we are going to change isn’t enough.  We must apply pressure to change though interpersonal influence and leadership at every level, executive leaders, middle managers, change drivers/program experts, and peer-to-peer.

I’ve spent a great many words making the case for the importance of the interpersonal level of change because it is fundamental to successful change and to achieving the performance promised by the change.  Let’s spend a few words discussing the key success factors of interpersonal influence.

First, let’s just focus on positive, constructive influence; we’ll ignore negative influence which should be stamped out of course.  Positive influence can only be obtained through trust.

We don’t try new things unless we see the thrill or benefit of it, or unless someone we trust influences us to do so.  When the former is hard to perceive, the latter is crucial.  Therefore, whether an agent of change is a leader of personnel or an individual contributor, the key to influencing others to do things differently, to try something new, is trust.

The following trust equation has been stated in several ways in several different presentations and resources in my library.  I’ll offer it in my favorite terms without any credit to whom might have laid it out first since I can’t say for certain.

Trustworthiness = credibility + character

It’s a simple equation, but not easy to always fulfill.  It is also a very personal thing.  It has everything to do with the person or the team of people.  It has nothing to do with organization charts or management metrics.

You wouldn’t trust a surgeon to work on your child if that surgeon had never performed the operation before.  That surgeon may or may not be capable, but without the proof of it, you wouldn’t consider him a credible or trustworthy solution.  Similarly, if that surgeon had a reputation for cutting corners or for allowing insurance company bureaucrats to make risk-based, cost-cutting decisions for him you would question his character and doubt if that surgeon should work on your child.

I like the word “credibility” because it addresses both information and skill.  Other words that have been used or proposed in its place include, proficiency, capability, and competence.  Take your pick.  The point is, for change agents to be influential they must be trustworthy.  If you are an agent of change, you must be trustworthy.

Chose your change agents carefully.  They must have character that is honest, earnest, and endearing.  They must also be able to demonstrate that they know what they are doing, teaching, or convincing others to try.  That means that they must demonstrate more than just a certificate indicating they have received some training.  They must prove competence to be credible.

Part of the change planning must include some projects or programs that will vet the new way as well as the change leaders who will be driving the new way.  My advice is to be bold, not conservative.  Pick something big and important, something that affects the business and its personnel significantly.  Involve everyone that is necessary and give each a do-or-die expectation.  Make it matter.

When those people successfully execute the new way, on something really big, it fulfills several criteria that will increase the trustworthiness of everyone involved, change agents, leaders, executives, and the program itself.
  • It shows commitment on the part of leaders to make it work (character)
  • It demonstrates that those involved are capable of making it work (credibility)
  • It demonstrates that the new way works (credibility)
  • When mistakes occur, and the leadership accepts that the team is learning and helps the team overcome the mistakes it earns trust (character)
  • When the execution team communicates lessons of both success and mistakes it shows genuine learning, wisdom, and honesty (credibility and character)
  • When the leadership sends forth the survivors to do it again it shows faith or trust in those team members (credibility for team, character for leadership)
  • When those who die instead of do actually suffer consequences, it demonstrates commitment and follow-through (character) and it applies a little of that outside pressure mentioned above

Another element of the interpersonal influence and trust combination is this.  People who do not trust, cannot be trusted.  When you lay out the management directives for the business change, make the statement in italics the prime directive and mantra of management behavior.

Understand that any time we do something new, and we change our habits, there is a learning curve.  There will be mistakes and re-dos.  When we discuss our new programs we often understand that, though we might wish it to be different, the change will not happen overnight and that it must occur in waves or cycles.  We talk about it, but our behavior doesn’t demonstrate that understanding when we begin executing.

We elect to do simple and easy projects first, like testing the water with our toes.  This shows doubt in our own declaration of the future way, a lack of trust if you will allow.  When a team fails to achieve the metrics performance targeted in a specific time, we punish the failure rather than reward the achievement we did make, discuss lessons we learned, and mentor further changes or understanding to facilitate better performance the next round.  Don’t demonstrate a lack of faith (trust).  Show faith that it will work and that your team is capable, and then coach them.

Make it clear that every change agent, be he or she a manager, an executive, or individual contributor, is to exercise an understanding that learning is taking place and trust that those who truly endeavor to change will succeed.  Focus on improving the behavior, on coaching, mentoring, and learning.  The metrics will come if the behavior changes.  Trust in those who try and those who learn.  Trust that if the behavior changes the results will manifest.

We have seen over and over again that simply reorganizing and changing metrics is not enough to truly change business performance.  To truly change performance, we must change behavior.  Behavioral change is made through interpersonal influence and leadership.

The key to interpersonal influence is trust and trustworthiness.  Chose agents of strong character and set them up to successfully demonstrate credible competence.  Finally, demonstrate faith and trust in order to inspire personnel to try the new way without fear of failure and to encourage them to try to succeed. 

To achieve results, the focus must not be on metrics or results; the focus must be on behavior.  Plan your change by adjusting executive and management behavior around trust and commitment, on learning and coaching.  Coach each other first, and then begin coaching personnel.

Apply the ideas above and break the cycle.  Stop the insanity of repeatedly failed initiatives and change programs.  Instead, plan the behavioral change, enable it with the reorganization and management directives, and execute the change through character and credibility.  See the dramatic change that is possible and achieve the results you seek.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. "Change occurs with behavior, which requires leadership and interpersonal influence." Thank you for that direct statement. In business, we do need someone whose goal is to always succeed, but not afraid of failure. It takes the right behavior to influence and inspire our personnel to strive to succeed.

  2. the way you have spelt out is excellent.even though many people knew this but do not understand what it is. You said it rightly.