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Change Work May 2007

You Can't Always Get What You Want

My own definition of manipulation, that I've put forward before in these articles, is "seeking to influence someone to do something that's not in their interests".

When change takes place in an organisation, and people are asked to adopt new roles, it's unlikely that the change will have been devised to suit them (the individuals affected). Does this mean it's not in their interests?

There's a contract in place, at least implicitly, that you're in the organisation to further its aims and hence its fortunes.  And, as the organisation pays your salary or bonus, or awards you share options, then it's in your interests to help make it successful.
But the need for change will be dictated by the organisation's strategic plans and the prevailing business conditions.  Management has a
responsibility to take action and doesn't need permission from the workforce to take it!

Now, good managers will consult widely to get everyone's ideas and opinions on how to implement a change. This is where many people will make a pitch for their own preferences and where they may well resist what's proposed.  But the important word here is "preferences", which is not the same as "interests".

In fact, it might be the very opposite!

For example, I prefer to communicate with people face-to-face or by e-mail.  I tend to steer away from telephone contact unless it's with someone I know well.  This is my preference and reflects my heavy reliance on the visual representational system as opposed to the purely auditory.  If I were required to adopt a role that involved a large amount of cold-calling I would resist and start looking for arguments supporting my position.  Arguably though, for the sake of my personal development, it would actually be in my interests to accept the change and focus on the opportunities it might bring.

Perhaps the most important question for the individual to ask is, "Will this change take me in a direction I want to go, professionally or personally?"

If the answer is "No", then a conversation about the consequences of that conclusion may be what's required rather than arguing about the pros and cons of the organisational change.

It's part of the manager's role to help individuals deal with the new situation by drawing out what the real issues are for them.  And distinguishing "interests" (i.e. what matters) from "preferences" (that seem to matter but don't really) is a key part of the support you provide.

Coaching people through change involves asking the right questions as well as making the "right" statements.

In fact, the very best solution is the one that the individual finds for themselves so you, the manager, don't even have to have all the answers!

To stimulate their creativity use "soft framing":  E.g. "What are some of the ways you could do that ... ?"  The simple device of including the words "some of" takes away the pressure of trying to find the right answer. "What are you going to do?" demands a final, committed conclusion.  Under stress, most of us suffer mental paralysis when asked a question like this.  We don't actually want to make a decision and the challenging way the question was framed demands nothing less.  The softer phrasing allows for tentative, half-formed ideas to be thrown up without any justification. Our full, unconscious resources then come into play and many possibilities (choices) suddenly appear.

Also useful in these situations is the "As if ..." frame.  So, if someone quickly rules out an idea, saying that they "couldn't do that", ask, "What would it be like if you could?"  This gives them permission to entertain the impossible for a while and often that's all that's needed for them to realise that there is actually a way through.

So, what would it be like if you could coach your people through change - serving everyone's genuine interests?  What are some of the ways you might approach that?

There, I knew you could do it!