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Change Work November 2014

A bit of give and take

Over the years I've come to realise that I'm motivated by ideas - something new that captures my imagination. Not any old ideas, just those that fit my preferences and prejudices. I love to explore new ways of looking at the world and take every opportunity to unpick how things work. And it always comes as a surprise when I come up against the evidence that this fascination isn't shared by everyone else.

At one time, in my old Research & Development job, I was very excited about a new approach to project management that I believed would make a huge difference to our work. It seemed obvious to me that it was worth implementing; the advantages were self-evident. But in rolling it out we found that it wasn't at all obvious to most others. No matter how much effort we'd put into explaining and selling the new approach, its impact would still have been limited because most of my colleagues just weren't interested.

This is an important lesson for managers, or anyone attempting to influence a group. It's also critical to the art of negotiation. It comes down to the old cliché: what's in it for them?

You have to find out what "they" want - and if there are many people involved, they might all want something different! Even when the issues seem to be clear, such as workers collectively pursuing a pay rise, there's usually more to it. People aren't motivated by material gain alone (or at all).

In management and politics (in the broadest sense) when you're trying to convince others to do what you want, you need to appeal to their values, such as truth, honesty, security or self-esteem. These are the most powerful drivers for individuals.

If you're a manager, let's say that you want to change the organisational structure or working practices. Then it's easy to assume that the people affected are only interested in the immediate demands of their job and how much they're paid. So you might think, for example, that the changes you want to make to workflow will be accepted without complaint because they have no impact on pay or responsibilities. What you don't know, unless you ask, is how much people value things like car parking provision, who they work next to, flexibility to take time off for family commitments or opportunities to learn new skills. If the changes disrupt these factors it can be devastating to those affected.

Potentially even worse than what's lost is the fear of some new job demand. For example, you may not be aware that a certain individual has a morbid fear of public speaking so what you perceive as a great opportunity for "exposure" could be a terrifying prospect for them - even leading to stress-related illness.

Outside of work you'll come up against this need to know "what's in it for them": in any community project, in local politics or in charity work. The ability to negotiate and find that "win-win" solution is crucial in so many situations, not least in neighbourhood disputes or family arguments.

Sometimes it's appropriate to pursue a formal consultation through surveys, interviews or polls. But that's not usually possible and in any case the most important step is to put yourself in the other party's position. Step back from what you think and ask what could they think. Once you're open to the possibility that other views exist then you can begin to imagine what impact your proposals might have.

What upsets people the most in these situations is the perception that their concerns are being ignored.  So, whatever the circumstances, avoid presenting a "final" position (or offer or plan). The antagonism this causes will only deepen resistance. Far better to leave plenty of room for all sides to contribute.

Our culture, particularly in business, values strength of purpose and single-minded commitment to goals and these are clearly effective in overcoming practical barriers. But if you need to carry others with you, or achieve a workable compromise, then you have to deal with others' conflicting goals and different perspectives. It's not a weakness to give the other side what they want.

There's a systematic method for putting yourself in someone else's position, and understanding more about how they see the world, that you can use in preparing for a meeting or presentation. Do give it a try.

Now, should I send it to David Cameron?