Employee engagement for control freaks

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Overview


When asking a roomful of managers the question ‘Who would admit to being a control freak?’ what proportion would you say raise their hands? Well, a lot – and I should know since it’s a question I’ve asked many, many times.

 

As managers we tend to work on the basis that everything is within our control - we suffer a poor weekend’s retail sales due to appalling weather and we feel it’s our fault; we lose market share as a competitor launches a brilliant new product and we beat ourselves up.

 

Yet all these things are outside our control; in fact it’s hard to come up with anything that is directly in our control, apart from of course, our staff.

 

We can’t control the weather, the competition or acts of God, but surely we can control our employees, can’t we? After all, they are contracted to us and we give them money every month in return for very specific activities and performance.

 

So if we can control our employees, why is it so difficult to get them to change? The answer is simple –most of our employees are control freaks too!


Creating genuine change: the 5-step plan

We’re simple creatures and when change is imposed upon us we go through a five-stage process before we accept change. Not only will people go through these five stages, they have to go through them; there is no skipping a stage. The five stages are: uncertainty; denial; negotiation; reflection; and action.

 

1. Uncertainty

 

  • Most of us live our lives according to a plan, even if it’s not conscious. Happiness is achieving something we’ve planned for – we love it when a plan comes together. Receiving news that change is to be imposed upon us creates uncertainty and we become 100% focussed on how it will affect us.

  • A thousand unanswered questions go through our heads – ‘Will I still be able to book that holiday I’ve been planning? Will I have a new boss and what will they be like?’All human beings fear the unknown and may panic when it is clear other people are now in control of their lives.

  • To see just how close people are to insecurity, try this simple test (actually, please don’t as it’s abusive!) – walk up to one of your employees, tap them on the shoulder and utter the chilling words ‘Can I just have a minute’. Watch the blood drain from their face and notice how they think they’ve done something wrong immediately.

  • Organisations today are pressure cookers of ludicrous expectations. Scratch the surface and most employees are only a heartbeat away from a state of insecurity and stress. It’s no wonder they want to feel in control, and why the descent into insecurity is rapid.

  • For these reasons, any communication about change needs to be crystal clear, simple and direct. Remember, once you have announced the change, people stop listening as the brain chatter of insecurity takes over.

  • There must be no ambiguity and saving peoples’ feelings, as this simply serves up future trouble. It’s why the change message has to be non-negotiable. Since fear is going to be an issue anyway, we need people to be more fearful of the status quo than of the change.

  • Leaders must acknowledge the inevitable feelings of insecurity by enabling people to talk about their personal concerns, but accept these emotional reactions, without shirking from the change or retracting it.

  • And, it is vital to start the process of painting an exciting future. Getting the change message right is equally as important as getting the change decision itself right.

 

2. Denial

 

  • Once people have absorbed the news, they go into denial. It’s not that they choose to be disruptive or resistant; it’s an inevitable process because the change has not been accepted psychologically.

  • Rationality kicks in and people start to think about past changes and realise that not everything they’ve been told has actually happened. They start second guessing our leaders’ motivations and endowing them with Machiavellian strategising. They decide to lie low, (to hide) and wait and see what happens.

  • This is disappointing for leaders– they after all are excited about the change. They’ve been living it for months, agonising over it, creating the vision and now they’ve announced these exciting plans to the employees they can’t understand why people aren’t excited.

  • But the bad news for leaders has just started. What happens next is that people start talking to each other. They ask each other what they think about the change and share their insecurities so they feel better and reassured.

  • They conspire against the change because they want to feel safe again. And what makes them feel safe is agreeing with people around them that the change either won’t happen or that it won’t be as bad as it sounds.

  • The denial phase is thus characterised by people sounding as though they are in agreement, using political language and ‘management speak’ and avoiding anything that sounds like a specific commitment.

  • Whilst it’s still OK for people to be inactive and not openly committing in this phase, they need to be challenged by the leaders to expose the truth of their position, and to move them towards the next stage as quickly as possible. Whereas in the first phase leaders should ask people how they feel, and what concerns and anxieties the change brings up for people, in this phase people should be asked what they think, and what obstacles and barriers people can see that might stop the change happening.


3. Negotiation

 

  • Once people accept that change is going to happen whether they like it or not, they move to negotiating, to wrestle back some element of control.

  • This is one reason why leaders should contemplate making the change not just inevitable from the outset, but irreversible. People can resist a planned change for a long time, but it’s harder to resist a change that is already executed.

  • I know we’ve all been taught that consensus is a good thing, and that involving people in future decisions is an effective way for them to truly own the plan, but this is the modern conundrum of leadership - and it’s why probably the most critical aspect of any change is for the leaders to decide up front what is non-negotiable.

  • Why? Because the negotiation phase is coming, and when we get there we need to be able genuinely to negotiate with our employees, not simply try and manipulate them into coming up with the right answer.

  • Leaders need to be aware of this and be clear over any non-negotiable elements otherwise this stage will be mishandled, and either too much ground, or indeed not enough, will be given to those expected to follow.


4. Reflection

 

  • Once employees have exhausted their negotiations and won some ‘concessions,’ we enter phase four – reflection. Before they can truly get on board, they must accept the change.

  • This is a private process. It involves them looking in the mirror and deciding they will accept and embrace the change. They may need to talk to their partner and friends to ask them to validate their decision to accept the change. This reflection stage is vital and why we often ask or advise people to ‘sleep on it’.

  • Of course back in our modern organisation, the compliance and even enthusiasm of employees during and at the end of the negotiation phase is often mistaken by the leader for total acceptance of the plan. This is a key mistake made many times - the reality is that the reflection phase must be navigated.

  • The leader must allow, even facilitate, a short period of quiet calm reflection, even if this is as simple as telling people to ‘take the weekend’ to think it over.


5. Action

 

  • There is no change without action. Ownership has to mean commitment and commitment is evidenced by action. It’s no good asking someone if they’re committed; as leaders we need to observe the actions of our people in performance, and then we know just how committed they are.

  • As human beings we feel back in control when we start living our life again according to some pre-determined plan that we feel is ours and no one else’s. So our actions might be small and even mundane, but they are the everyday actions of employees who are working again towards a common purpose and goals.

  • And so finally we move through to ownership - that we believe in and evangelise the change as if it had been all our idea in the first place. This is the Holy Grail for most leaders – getting their people, their teams, their departments, their companies to ‘buy into’; to ‘own’ the change.


People will go through the 5 stages outlined above on their own, ‘naturally’, but it will take a long time and there will be much cost, risk and stress along the way. The biggest risk of all is that we will need to launch the next ‘generational’ change before our employees have come to a place of acceptance of the last one! Sound familiar?


Authentic leadership is what’s needed

 

  • The leader’s job is to move people through these 5 stages as fast as possible – arguably the definition of leadership is to get people through these stages quicker than on their own.

  • So how long does it take? For a big change with huge potential impact on the lives of individuals, some organisations never complete the cycle; some never get out of denial! But with authentic leadership, a big change might only take weeks to gain total acceptance and commitment.

  • Authentic leadership means creating an emotional journey towards an inspirational vision of the future – creating a compelling mission or purpose – and then communicating this in such a way as the people who want to believe get on the bus, and those who do not, get off.

  • It means:

    • asking the right questions of people at each stage
    • holding people and listening to their answers without shirking from the discomfort of the resistance that will naturally come
    • being disciplined and applying sanctions – not allowing people to go back a stage once we have all moved on
    • ensuring that all conversations are authentic not superficial
    • noticing and acknowledging the emotions that will, indeed must be felt through the stages and celebrating them when they arrive on the scene


     

 

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