During Change – Seek First to Understand

Boomer Consulting embarked on an adventure this year to move many of our technology platforms to cloud-based solutions that would work collaboratively together. It literally changed everything about how we work – from our processes to training on systems, and changing work habits for each of us. Let’s just say, it has been rough on everyone. We knew going into it that the long-term outcome would be terrific, but we really missed the mark on how hard this change would be for all of us. The stress has been evident in our behaviors, our communication and in the other projects that have been affected by the shock waves of the technology project itself. I believe in what we are doing and I believe we will someday look back on this time in our history and realize it was worth it, but trust me, there have been more than a few times when each of us has uttered the words “what were we thinking when we said this was a good idea”.

I have written often about the importance of trust, honesty and open communication among the team, and I stand by those core values when talking about change management. Without these basic traits, change in an organization is impossible. What I did not expect, is that in times of major change, even the best teams can be challenged. As leaders, I believe we came close in the past few months to making a few major blunder with our team. In our enthusiasm to remain positive and lead the team to stay the course, and climb the to the top of the mountain of change, we delivered a strong message of “we will do it, don’t worry, don’t complain, don’t get negative this is going to be great!”. The problem with the message was that we ignored some of the conflict that was starting to happen, and some on the team felt that management did not want to hear the negative or conflict messages, so they simply went quiet. You can imagine the problem with that. One of our core values was being tested – open communication. In a nutshell, when our management group gave the impression that we valued the message of “keep going it will be ok” more than open and honest communication, all kinds of bad things started to happen.

I believe in being empathetic, kind, respectful and supportive, but I also believe in complete and utter truth. Sometimes that truth is different – particularly in times of immense change – for various individuals in the process. The leader must find a way to be empathetic and supportive, while still doing what is ultimately good for the overall firm. Some call this time in the change management process “storming”, some call it “crucial conversations” others say “violent agreement”, but regardless of what words we use, the outcome is one of complete respect because as a leader you stepped back and listened and put yourself in the others person’s shoes and helped them to work through their pain. During this time of tough conversation the most important thing for a leader to do is listen. The others on your team want to be heard and in reality they don’t even need a solution that minute, they just want you to feel the pain they are feeling. This is not easy for most of us, since we are solution people, but if you want to build trust with your team – this is the best strategy to start.

Looking back, what could we have done and more importantly what will we do different as we move forward with our team? Here are a few things that I believe will help:

Know your triggers. Too often, specific words or actions trigger deep misunderstanding. In our case, every time a team member said something that they were frustrated with in the same page project change we would respond with reassurance that we were on the right path and that it would get better. To many the message was “get over it”. That is certainly not what we intended, but that was the message they were hearing. We needed to infuse more empathy and understanding. The outcome – stay the course – would have been a result of the communication and collaboration that people felt after the conversation, not the actual verbal message itself.

Get curious about what the team is feeling. Ok, this may be more than most of us are comfortable thinking about – you know that “feeling” word. However, the truth is, when you go from listening to the words that people are saying to the act of engaging in how they are feeling by watching their body language or their facial expressions you often encounter a whole new level of understanding. Engage your curious nature about how others are feeling and you will find that getting on the same page as your team members is much easier. It opens up our minds to the possibility that the other person may not be saying what we think they’re saying, but something else entirely. You’ll move from focusing on making your point as clearly as possible to finding out what the other person actually means.

Check your understanding. Simply ask the other person –“Are you saying X?” or “Do you think Y?”. This can often resolve seemingly intractable disagreements. A great example of this is a conversation I had with one of my team members during this project. I was having a weekly meeting with her and I she said “I am so frustrated with the number of steps it takes to do this report”. I was assuming that she was ready to throw in the towel and go back to an old way of doing things, so I immediately jumped into my cheerleader mode and told her it would get better, maybe we could get more training, or maybe with more practice it would get faster. She simply got quiet and we went on with the rest of our meeting. The next week, we talked again and I asked how the reports were going. This time, I was on a Google hangout with her so I could see her facial expressions. She verbalized “everything is ok” but her facial expression and body language said exactly the opposite. This time, I did not make assumptions and do the “rah rah” thing, I said let’s talk about this and tell me how you are feeling. It was a long conversation, but also one that was VERY positive to get us both on the same page in our thinking and we brainstormed together some strategies to help her. I followed a golden rule of leadership “Seek first to understand”!

Our team will survive and thrive. Our leadership group will get better. Change is powerful and wonderful, because it forced us to look at our own leadership style and make adjustments. We are smart enough to seek first to understand our team and do a little changing of our own.

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