The “Murmuration” of Change

I have to admit, I’m always a little surprised at the degree of confidence with which companies enter into change or realignment programs. The statistics clearly show that a huge proportion of change programs fail, either completely or at the very least partially. Despite this, most companies embark on change programs of one sort or another with very little regard to what will make them succeed. In New Zealand, especially, change programmes and restructurings are ubiquitous. They are everywhere, and all the time, and the stats are no different!

I have spent a great deal of time in my advisory capacity during change processes trying to get leaders to reassess the timeframes which they expect change to take place. I remember one change process but I was asked to do, where I was given a deadline of three months, over Christmas to completely realign an entire business – in fact, to merge two completely separate businesses and find them new offices. And fit out the new offices. And implement new logistics systems. And find a warehouse. And implement new warehousing software. And get rid of 40 people. When I spoke to the CEO about timeframes, he felt that he had assessed things correctly and that three months should be more than enough.

I promise you, this is true. I couldn’t dream this up.

Needless to say, 12 months later, and long after I left, the change process was still underway.

That’s just one example amongst many where the hubris of the executive team has been an important factor in the success or failure of business-critical transformation. I honestly believe that the two biggest success factors in any transformation process are the humility and patience of the CEO.

And by humility I don’t mean self-deprecation, or a lack of confidence. That’s not what humility is. Humility is, simply, seeing one’s self correctly. Neither underestimating one’s worth, nor over estimating one’s worth. And on the flipside of that neither underestimating the worth of others in relation to onesself, or over estimating the worth of others in relation to onesself. But a CEO or an executive team which remains distant from the change process is abdicating their critical role in its success. It’s not enough to deliver a resounding motivational speech about why, or to post up an impressive PowerPoint presentation on the process. Anyone can do that. Getting down and dirty will enable much clearer vision, much closer understandings and much better sensitivity to the fluidity of the process.

If you want to change your company, you can’t do it from the corner office.

And by patience, I mean the ability to move as fast as your slowest member, without losing inertia. We see this in nature all the time, and it’s surprising to me that we do not identify this dynamic as incredibly powerful in change management. Coming as I do from Africa, I have spent a great deal of time in the African wilderness, walking or driving near huge herds of animals – buffalo, elephant, wildebeest etc. Without fail the progress of the herd is determined by the speed and endurance of the youngest and the weakest. As a result, the journeys are planned for the safe arrival of the entire herd, not just the strong ones.

With elephants, the matriarch leads, but the second animal is always the young one. It’s for protection, and it’s for pace setting.


That is not to say that if we let the “slowest and weakest” in our corporate herd determine the pace, we will be doing a good thing. No doubt it is important to set a pace that will get the job done in a reasonable timeframe; and letting oneself be directed in that regard by outliers (whether weak, or strong!) is unacceptable. I would say that it is reasonable that in the change process there might be some casualties; or put another way, a process of culling, where people who are unwilling to change are presented with the ultimate choice – “come on board, or don’t come on board. Both choices will have consequences”. That is very OK, as not everyone HAS to make it through.

A leadership team invested in successful change will understand that they are trying to shift the direction of a large body of individuals. In a team made up of 150 employees for example, the change process should consider not just “the team”, but each individual member of the team. That is not to say that there will need to be 150 different change processes from companies point of view but without a doubt, there will not be just one. To some extent it’s possible to rely upon the dynamics of birds in flight (anyone remember the “murmuration of starlings” phenomenon?), where birds were described as behaving like “magnets in flight” – each bird affecting the behaviour of the 7 around it, to create an amazingly unified pattern of flight amongst many hundreds of birds.


But it is not possible to rely on this entirely, without making it a deliberate strategy, and that is a major factor in failed change processes. So in such a change process, I would suggest that the leadership team should understand that there might be 10-20 individual change processes that need to be deliberately embarked on in addition to the overall change process. These individual change processes would be targeted at key individuals who have high influence, both positive and negative, within the organisation. When they influence their immediate circle, the “murmuration” begins.

Like ants, who are trying to carry things that weigh many hundreds of times their weight, they work together to achieve the goal. They distribute the load, share the load, and get it done. The danger with hubris, is that a leader might believe that by decreeing change, or conducting a surface deep exercise, that they have done enough to initiate successful transformation. But the personality of a CEO is not sufficient to create change. Maybe for a Richard Branson or an Elon Musk, but most CEO’s are not them…

So it’s about paying attention, about getting help, about deliberately creating change agents whose influence one has nurtured and established in a positive way, or whose negative influence one has diminished or neutralized. About deliberately creating a “murmuration” using key influencers. And about making sure that the individual journeys of employees are respected and that resources are allocated to partner and assist.


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Being All There

It was very sobering realising that my choices and routines did not just set the rhythm and stability of my world, but that they equally  affected the rhythm and stability of every life that was intimately connected with mine. Especially those that were powerless and utterly dependent on me. Children especially, are as corks on the water – they go with the momentum of the family dynamic and learn that that is “just how it is”. The experiences they have, become their sense of what is “normal”. And that normal childhood, becomes their normal parenting, so the cycle perpetuates.

The rhythms we create and inculcate are very influential. They way it happens for our children, becomes “right” to them. They have nothing to compare it to, so whatever it is, is right to them. Even if it is not right at all. And usually, the rhythm that suits a busy executive, affects the family in an inverse correlation. The more stable and to their liking the routines are, the less those routines consider and accommodate family. Shocking, but true. I wonder how many of us default to a world that is comfortable or manageable for ourselves, and do not realise (God forbid we don’t actually even care) the impact that we are having around us.

So our partners get 3-5 hours a day, but they are not exclusively theirs. Until the kids are in bed, those hours were dominated with bathing, bickering, toy-picking-up (usually locating the Lego by standing on it etc) and such. Then we get some time, but its including chores and such – like tidying, or washing, or cleaning, or whatever.

Our kids get a maximum of 2-3 hours a day, and those hours are generally spend chasing them OUT of bed in the mornings, and chasing them INTO bed in the evenings! My own kids are a beautiful chaos, all 4 of them. And they take a lot of wrangling. And in my work mode, I would quickly revert to the Sergeant-Major parenting style where lots of things have to get done in a  specific time frame, and I was going to get the result I wanted, come hell or high water. Frequently that meant chasing kids around, stopping fights, keeping dinner times on track, and, eventually, but usually, losing my cool or becoming stressed.

My wife, watching her man at home, saw nothing of the smooth calm professional who got his work done on time and solved problems left, right and centre; influencing outcomes, and designing systems and processes to get things done smoothly and simply. She saw a time poor, stressed and tired person who just wasn’t coping with a 16 hour nonstop day – from 07h00 to 23h00 every day, kids, work, kids, wife, sleep. And repeat.

Where was the “win” for my wife; for my kids? Looking back, I can’t see one. Sure there were beautiful moments, but what must it be like to be always the partner of a tired, stressed workaholic? And to be the child of a guy like that? It has taken me time and effort to look at the world I created for them, from THEIR perspective. Not just imagining it – that is too quick and too easy cheap a substitute for real understanding. It cheapens their needs, to pretend it can be understood through “imagining” or guesswork. To imagine something is not to know it, it is just to fake empathy and paint in broad brush strokes where a pinpoint accuracy is in fact needed. Empathy costs, and it hurts. It has to, or its not empathy.

We need to empathise. Actually to cease embracing the self-centric perspective on the world we live in (and force them to live in too), and KNOW their world. FEEL it; and connect with it through their eyes, and emotions. What does that mean? Perhaps an illustration from a book on marriage that I once read: When getting married, it is not enough to know what your partner needs. It is not enough, even, to UNDERSTAND what your partner needs. It is not even enough, apparently to make your partners needs “as important as your own”. (The competition for time and energy still exists, eventually forcing damaging choices between their priorities and ours).

Apparently, the key to forming a new team where both parties are completely on the same page, is to make your partners needs, your own. Her needs, ARE your needs. His needs, ARE your needs. Challenging stuff, and I do not speak as an expert!

So, coming back to family.

Our family’s needs, need to be our needs. For the time we are with them, it is my suggestion that what we need, is what THEY need. Nothing more, nothing less. Our partners need to connect. We need to connect. The real us needs to be seen, and appreciated. The real them, needs to be seen and appreciated. Not the bedraggled executive meeting the tired kid wrangler for an exhausted hello peck and a distracted conversation. Or whatever it is that each of us does when we arrive home. Real connection takes real effort, and the casting side of our own needs… unless, our needs ARE their needs, and their needs ARE our needs. Then there is no compromise, no sacrifice. WE need to connect, so we connect and in doing so are connected with. WE need to feel safe and loved, so we do and in doing so we offer sanctuary. We need to feel appreciated, so we appreciate and in so doing receive it back. It’s a beautiful, unselfish symmetry.

If they need to read Lightning McQueen®  stories for the hundredth time, then that is what WE need as well. I can tell you from personal experience, that reading for the hundredth time, and pumping all the expression into the story again so that the little ones feel the excitement and live and breath it when you read it – it becomes the most important thing we do. I am not lying there “enduring” a childish story and waiting to go downstairs and relax. Reading that story is EVERYTHING I want to do for those 10 minutes. And tucking them in slowly and gently, praising them for their good choices that day, putting them to sleep feeling safe and loved with a smile on their face, is what I need too. Their need IS my need. I get as much from being their loving sanctuary, as they get from being loved and safe.

Its a beautiful place, and I don’t want to leave it. Of course, work will come, and I will get into a routine again. Its inevitable. But having stepped outside my routine, and stepped into the world that my routines created for them, I realise that I do not want to go back to that mercenary place. Their world should not be at the mercy of my world. Their world IS my world. My world, when I am with them, IS their world. A world of rushing adults, and misunderstood motivations, and no time and things to be done, and no moments to savour, is not what a child needs. And if its not what our children need, its not what we need either.

We should never be willing to sacrifice what they need on the altar of our lack of empathy for the world we have created for them.

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Lives out of balance

I am currently unemployed, and I guess this has in many ways given me a completely different set of stimuli to deal with. I have nothing grandiose to say about my work, as much as I love it; I didn’t change the world. I changed my company, a bit, and some peoples’ worlds, for the better, and I was grateful for that privilege. Some things I built will last for a while, but in the nature of things, people and companies move on. Nothing I built will last “forever”.

I wrote emails, made phone calls, solved people’s problems when I had to, and mentored and guided them to solve their own when I could. I worked with organisational structure, trying to design and get buy in for what tomorrows needs might be and to influence how we could plan for them today. It had its stresses, and its rewards, and, living my life as the central figure of my story, I took those ups and downs happily and was relatively content.

Work was only one chapter in my daily story, and while we all have a work story that is probably relatively similar, there are at least two other stories, every day, all day, in all of our lives. The first other story, is of us as a spouse/partner. As a spouse/partner, I could use some work (I was going to write “…I guess”, but that doesn’t quite capture the truth. I really DO need some work). My long-suffering wife deals every day with my love of technology and being connected, and in times where we are looking for work, that is a reality that is a two edged sword for our relationships; a “necessary evil”. They are our partners, our friends and our confidants, our co-parents and our raison d’etre, but to be honest, I am sure that we are alI at times distracted souls and a preoccupation with work can mean that partners get the second best of us. As breadwinners and having been programmed by society to get our identity from our workplace achievements, our primary energies and passions go into doing our work well, because without that, we feel lost! We all read enough  to know that is a false identity, but still, we get it wrong.

When I was working, I would come home, and because of the different time zones I was working across, I believed I could not switch off until the last of my stakeholders also switched off. For many of us, that can happen because of projects, bosses without boundaries, or any of a number of other reasons. Sometimes that can mean midnight or later, when the last email text or Skype message had faded off our screens. In reality, though, that is just us having poor boundaries and discipline. Perhaps it makes us feel special; needed; valuable? There are only 24 hours in a  day, though, and the impact of that, is not enough marriage and family time. Looking back, the one thing I think we can all say for sure is that the loyalty we have given work, is never really repaid. When costs are an issue, when politics plays its part, there is no loyalty, and the investment we made in our employer is quickly disregarded. Only then do we realise that we gave away something precious because… because why? It was more important? No, it wasn’t. But it made us FEEL more important. When will we learn?

Our second other story is the story of us parenting our beautiful children. We get some time in the morning, but lets face it, it isn’t quality time. Rushing to get them ready for school, trying to turn lazy into energetic… making breakfasts and lunches and trying to get shoes on and teeth brushed as we rushed out the door every morning. Not great for connecting. In fact just a  little uncooperativeness, and we are instantly pressured by our own deadlines into forgetting “family” and we default again to achieving results at any cost.

In the evenings, we have dinner, get the bath done, and then it’s time for bed, all the while distracted and responding to those emails, texts and Skype messages. For a brief, all too brief, 10 or 20 minutes we might slow down and read stories, following the Fantastic Mr Fox®  down his hole or imagining Geronimo Stilton®  on his various quests for cheese and glory. I would lie across the beds with my kids piling on top of me and hanging off every word (if they had heard it before they would be correcting me as well).

On the weekends we all need to recharge, but there is always so much to do, and in my case with 3 energetic boys and a ballerina princess, we were always going to be busy. Shopping, house stuff, sports, church, etc and before you know it, its Monday.

Now, with work stripped away, and more time on my hands, I am realising stuff. I am looking back and seeing that same routine, those same days, weeks, months and years, but from the perspective of my wife and my children. For those of us on the hamster-wheel of careers and work, this is a good thing to take the time to do. It took a redundancy and unemployment for me to do this, but that is not ideal. That is not first prize. It’s a very poor second prize. If I could, I would go back in time and realise this a decade ago or more, before it could affect precious people.

I am realising just how out of kilter my family’s lives were, because of my choices. My fault, because all the choices I made were my own! But those choices built a real imbalance. They say if you create a radar graph of your life priorities (a “wheel of life”), and score your life out of 10 on five axes, you should aim for a fairly well rounded chart along the axes of work, social, spiritual, family, and health. I am not going to show you my results, but I am not sure my wheel of life could roll anywhere without jarring my teeth loose. But enough about me and my rattling teeth, how would your radar chart look?

More later…

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Redundancy Thoughts: The Communication Stuff

I remember once I had a property that I was renting out, and a friend was in need of temporary lodgings. He was a bit cash-strapped, so we agreed a rental rate that was well, well below market value. Then after a long while, circumstances changed and I simply had to recoup better rental rates or be seriously “in the dwang” myself. Firstly, I did my own homework to see if I could still honour our arrangement. Independently of him, my situation was none of his business. But where the solution to my problem impacted him, I felt that that was different.

Then, when I knew I could not manage without it affecting him, we chatted. To treat him with respect, as a friend, I revealed my finances to him as far as the property was concerned. Maintenance costs, interest rates, repayments, shortfalls etc. That way, he could see my dilemma for himself, clearly, and could understand my reasoning fully as we discussed both his situation and mine. My options did not suit him very well, and there were some painful, but honest, moments. Eventually, he moved out, but a situation that could have strained a friendship did not – in fact, our friendship grew closer.

Maybe that would be excessive for you, I don’t know. It seemed right, and fair, to me.

One on one, if we are doing something that will have a huge effect on a friend or a family member, we would all (hopefully) operate with a great deal of respect and care in how we arrived in that situation, communicated it, and executed it. Because of the fact that we will remain in contact with the person afterwards, see them socially or at family functions, we take care to pay a great deal of attention to respecting them and preserving their dignity, don’t we? It makes life after the event, much more bearable. Its just common decency! Its what every good person would do… Isn’t it?

But I think the restraint that is created by having to see a family member or friend again and again after the event, is not there for employers, who can close the door on that chapter, and forget. After all, “out of sight, out of mind”?

But WHY do we treat those in the workplace any different?

A redundancy is very similar to this, in many many ways. Communication is at the core of treating employees with respect and giving them dignity. Its pretty simple really. Employees are not children. Redundancy is huge, and it impacts massively on the employee, their family and their commitments. It can affect credit ratings, and if it results in relocation to find new work, it can mean complete and utter upheaval both socially and financially. A discussion with these implications should be conducted respectfully on an adult-adult level, not an adult-child level.

When one adult decides what another adult can know or not know, or when they can be told it, then, largely, the first adult is forcing the second adult into the role of a “child”. Of course, some information is rightly confidential, but in reality, Mr CEO, we all know there is not too much of that going on. I guess some employers like to think of themselves as being at a “military” level of secrecy, but in reality, very little of a specific situation is THAT much of a secret and would be an issue if discussed with an affected individual.

What is actually happening, where there is poor communication and non-disclosure, is that the change leader is either ignoring, or not getting, competent ER advice. Perhaps it’s a power play; perhaps its immaturity. Hopefully its not ignorance, that would be inexcusable.  Perhaps, its an unwillingness to take advice and get these important people decisions right… because, “CEO”. Who knows. In my experience its quite a complicated thing, and can be quite a Sisyphean challenge for the HR guy.

What it usually is, I have found, is the lack of empathy, and lack of humility that can easily come with the rarified air of a C-suite office. There are “important” things to do, goals to achieve, and reports to write. And “I’m the CEO so this must happen, I have decreed it”. People are complicated and people issues are messy. They clog up the inbox, and they take up time. It is rare that a CEO will say “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and bend his knee to truly understand issues on the same level as the affected employees. I have met one such man, in 20 years of working and travelling. And what a man he was! (John Havinga, I salute you).

So, what would an ideal communication look and feel like (again, this is not definitive as jurisdictional requirements may differ widely)?

  • It would be well prepared, and contain an abundance of resource material for the affected employee to consider. It would be open, and honest. Consider this list as an idea:
    • Org charts, old and proposed.
    • Business case for the new structure.
    • List of affected positions.
    • Reasons why they are affected.
    • What the company has done to avoid the loss of employment
    • What other employment options might be available

Why so exhaustive, you ask? Well, as a change leader, these factors have been considered in depth, and the proposal you have come up with is at least a summary of this information. Where it creates a redundancy situation for someone, it is at the very least fair that the employee be shown HOW you arrived at your decision, and what factors influenced you. (Remember, we are aiming for adult to adult, not adult to child)

I would prepare this as an information pack, with suitable confidentiality requirements, of course.

  • An employee would know why they were called to a meeting, and legal requirements would be respected as a bare minimum! And employees who are similarly affected should be seen together.

This prevents the very obvious perception that the company is being secretive and separating/ dividing employees so that they are in a weakened position. Why else would it separate similarly affected employees?

  • Employees would be given time to consider, even to chat amongst themselves and get their heads around the issues. The complex issues that have led to this need to be understood so that intelligent questions can be asked and counter proposals considered, but also, everyone has a personal world that is deeply affected. Also, because EVERYONE is affected, even the “not affected” ones, it is understandable if everyone is permitted to work together to understand the impact and to consider alternatives (Unless of course, only the executive could EVER be clever enough to think of all the possible strategies and solutions…)
  • Once all the ideas from the employees have been considered, they should ALL be fed back to ALL the affected employees, and even to the entire employee body. Without comment, and with gratitude.

This shows that the executive has not filtered the feedback and have honestly taken it all on board, at least to start with. It shows respect to every employee that ALL the ideas are important, that their endangered colleagues are important, and by default that they too are important.

  • Viable proposals from the employees should be adopted. If there is a zero/minimal cost difference from the executive proposal to the employee proposals, and jobs are saved, then the solution that saves jobs is the better one.

Doing this PROVES that ending someone’s employment truly is a last resort, not a badly disguised and premeditated strategy. Anything else is bad faith and demonstrates that the communication process is cynical, not genuine.

  • When employees are made redundant, how the company processes that termination, and how they verbally honour (or do not dishonour) the departing employee, is the best indicator of whether “Our employees are our most valuable asset”. For a while, it is imperative that the corporation have a human face – after all, these are “no fault” terminations, and faceless, mechanical processes are extremely out of place.

In the worst possible scenario, where the process leading up to terminations has been a tough one, with possibly anger, frustration, hurt, and loose words, a CEO would do well to not close out the process “with prejudice”, meaning a quick, blunt, termination and a stony silence. It is an opportunity to take the moral high ground, but sadly some CEO’s I have worked with have not handled those situations as well as they might have. On a few occasions I have watched them destroy their own credibility and reputations by throwing a toddler-like tantrum and tossing their toys out the cot. The opportunity to really take the moral high ground back, was there, but wasted. And everybody saw it…

Treating both remaining and departed people with respect, preserving their legacy, and ensuring that remaining employees have the opportunity to grieve for lost colleagues, reveals high calibre leaders with empathy and insight, and a talent for building sustainable workplaces.

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Redundancy Thoughts: The How

This post kind of takes the last two redundancy-related posts, and regardless of jurisdiction and statutory requirements, offers some thoughts and ideas around what would make such a devastating process a bit more bearable, by offering the affected employees some dignity, hope and empathy, and showing the remaining employees the calibre of their leaders. Since the legal minimum requirements would be different depending on jurisdiction, I have take the best standards that I am aware of and been cognisant of those. This is not procedural advice, these are purely thoughts offered in pursuit of best practice, and to focus on the HEART aspect of leading with “head, heart and hands”.

It is my hope that these things become primary pursuits of a change leader in any change process. With these front and centre it is my hope that change processes can be accomplished with maximum dignity and respect for the affected employees, and as a result, achieve minimum fall out on the work place and employees that remain. Leadership credibility and trustworthiness would be enhanced as the “heart” of a good leader is revealed.

When a restructuring idea is first contemplated, it usually happens that engagement levels BY THE LEADERS start to shift. It is because (largely) of the bad news that they are responsible for creating, and leaders tend to subconsciously begin to disengage from the affected employee as a means of emotional self protection. It is understandable, but it is devastating. I can assure you, as a change agent, that every individual I have worked with can immediately sense this happening, and because it is unexplained, it creates massive fear and doubt.

How does it happen? Emails take longer to get answered, phone conversations get shorter or morph into missed calls and messages. The nature of calls changes. Skype gets used for text more than for voice. Courtesy inclusions change, different people get cc’d in, and generally the pattern of communication and inclusion in business activities undergoes a shift. Invitations to offer strategic input reduce, and in the worst case, critical or sensitive functions begin to be duplicated or distributed elsewhere.

The employee may not suspect a redundancy per se, but they do get the clear message that something is going badly wrong with their workplace relationships. This creates fear, confusion, disengagement, uncertainty, and gossip. That much uncertainty generally results in a need to find security, and employees tend to find it with each other.

So it is definitely not advisable for leaders to begin a personal disengagement process prior to the formal redundancy process. It may even feel difficult or weird, but don’t disengage in any way, until the process is underway formally.

So, if we aren’t sending subtle messages early, and “accidentally-on-purpose letting the cat out of the bag” how do we break this sudden news with dignity? Personally, I think the main goal must be to create space and time – as well as privacy, if they want it – for individuals to process things, and at the same time manage the rumour mill that will begin to come alive. This can be timing-based, as well as relationship-based.

We create dignity and respect, by when and how we talk to the individual, and by the way we present the big picture to everyone. Personally, I have never seen anything wrong with beginning the formal process privately with an employee, for example, by arranging a meeting off site, and late one afternoon, with due regard for all procedural requirements.

This is where the empathy comes in, and like I said, finding that in an executive level manager can at times be difficult. It is critically important that humility, empathy and concern are blended into the conversation, and I feel that the best way to do this is to have a senior line manager do the conversation. That way, the manager is a (senior) co-employee, a messenger who can actually empathise, not the change leader whose concern may be obviously disingenuous as it was all their idea to start with! Be always kind, and be always real. From the company’s perspective as well, its best not to field the final decision maker in the early stages (otherwise the playing for time strategy of “I’ll have to check that with the exec team” becomes quickly farcical)

The process is easy to comply with if broken up into bite size chunks, but the value of making space and time for contemplation and showing respect is huge. The key component of respect is truth. Full disclosure of all key details is vital. Attempts to be secretive and declaring certain information off limits, is hugely disrespectful; very destructive to trust, as well as usually being in bad faith. Rule of thumb – if there is a sense that relevant information needs to be concealed in a redundancy situation, then the process is definitely in danger of being unfair, disrespectful, and disingenuous.

There will be real pain, real hurt, confusion and fear. Hard questions, and the company representative must be ready for them, and must answer them well. There might even be anger and frustration, and the manager needs to hear those reactions without defensiveness, and without indulging in their own retaliation or reaction.

The group presentations and discussions that happen when general restructuring announcements are made, should be encouraged. Nothing stops the rumour mill like the clarity of communication, and the freedom to talk and the availability of leaders to answer questions! And nothing starts the rumour mill up like attempts to limit it! Again, as full a disclosure as possible should be attempted, erring on the side of more. Why not? Whatever is required by law, don’t skimp at all on that, and go further if you can. Going further is good faith. It makes the company the good guy in a tough situation. Work can stop for a few hours – even a full day – if necessary. Offer that. Be kind. Make space. Empathise.

Delivery is everything, and presenters must plan for and be prepared for hard questions that people want – and need – answers to. The inability to answer questions honestly and straight away, will be devastating to the company’s reputation, and will cause everyone – even those “unaffected” – to distrust the process (remember they are NOT unaffected – its their colleagues getting the chop!).

The company representative must not stand there like a robot and present blandly off the PowerPoint. Figure it out! Sit, stand, lean in, lean out. Slow down, speed up, repeat yourself. Make eye contact, change your tone, express care, express hurt, feel the room and gauge its temperature. Modulate and reengineer your words to meet the needs in the room. But always, have lots of information available and share it freely.

Don’t do these meetings on a clock. Leaders, trust me that on the day of this discussion, you do NOT have anything more important to do than be present. Stay, until the very end, and be available. Don’t be busy, don’t do emails in another room. Don’t go to other meetings. Treat these moments as important as the employee would like them to be treated. Every employee in the room will get your real message and your “real” heart if you “up and off” to a sales meeting or to catch a plane after abruptly ending the discussions. Stay late; stay an extra day if you have to. Finish strong. Create some space and time that you are willing to be in no matter your own personal discomfort. Make it personal for you to be real, don’t make it a business transaction that you can sign off on without a backward glance.

This is where a leader needs to be willing to wear the discomfort of extended silences, hard questions and answer sessions, making eye contact with hurting employees and waiting for people to struggle with hard questions without rushing them. Its called humility. Its called grace. It’s a transcendent thing, and people need it. It will make or break your credibility. Know that as the creators of pain, we leaders have the responsibility to sit with the wounded as much as they need it, and honour the hurting, with care and compassion.

I would want to trust that senior leadership avoid at all costs the “seagull approach” in theses situations… you know, “fly in, drop a load, and fly off”. If you don’t have the stomach for these situations AND the skill to deliver empathy, get someone else to do it. And maybe, to be brutally honest, sit down and question your readiness for your role.

I will continue the “How” with a discussion around clarity and integrity of communication.

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Redundancy Thoughts : Empathy

We HR folks are always running into extreme personality types, at one point or another. That’s the lot of a change agent. A CEO might view an organisation and see a group of people, with the ones he or she knows best in clearer definition that the rest. In HR, we don’t get the luxury of a selective view. When we bring change, we encounter each individual as an individual, and its our responsibility to find that persons tipping point and bring them on board for the change journey. The challenge of course, is when it is the change leader themselves that could use some input 🙂

We stand outside the process, and view each participant as a person undergoing change. The CEO will view everyone as either being “affected by change” or not “affected by change”. The employees do the same from the their own point of view of the person being affected, or not. Generally the line managers are both implementing change as per instructions, and being affected by it, so they are the ones caught in the change management “sandwich”. What is true is that everyone is affected, regardless. There are actually no “unaffected” people in a workplace restructure (unless they are sociopaths of a sort). How this process is worked out will affect everybody in the organisation.

Following on from the previous post about dignity and hope, I would like to offer further thoughts around that topic, focussing on the matter of empathy.

When a person is affected by change, it is entirely natural for that person to see the change process from a positive or negative view, based on how it is affecting them personally. It is very important to say at this point that the most insulting thing a change leader can say to an affected employee is “Nothing personal, this is just business”. For the employee affected, what the company is proposing is not business. It is entirely, completely, absolutely and incontrovertibly, very, very, very, VERY personal.

Two things have just happened to that employee:

Firstly, the skies have darkened and a financial nightmare is approaching really fast. Time lines and personal plans that might have been relaxed, have condensed into a NOW. Urgency and fear have arrived without warning.

Secondly, you have communicated to that employee that “Actually, now that we think about it, you are useless to us. Go home and tell your family. By the way, sorry, its not personal, its just business. You understand.”

An absolutely devastating one-two.

“It’s not personal, it’s just business” is the rehearsed – and may I say worse than pathetic – line of a leader incapable of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is easy, and it is cheap. It makes the sympathiser feel better, but it usually does absolutely nothing for the affected person. Empathy is deeper, richer, and far more substantial. It can actually cross the emotional divide between the empathiser and the affected person. It connects through shared experience and pain.

“Sympathy” is “I’m sorry for your pain”. “Empathy” is “May I share your pain”.

This is where change leaders run into difficulties. The same way a general on the front line is required to sends troops to their deaths, a change leader can make decisions that end peoples employment, which is a figurative “death”. Their heart is exposed, whether they like it or not. And employees are looking for the “heart” of the leader. The difference is always found in the leader whose heart grows heavy with each decision; each interaction, as opposed to the leader who says “Right. That’s done, lets move on now”. The one where writing the letters is done slowly, personally and with great care, as opposed to a mail-merge.

Restructuring makes employees tired and can quickly lead to demotivation. Their world has been shaken and the illusion of stability and security has made way for uncertainty. In companies that regularly restructure (and in Australia/NZ there are many; this is a cowardly way of managing poor performance, solving personality issues, political manipulation etc.) this can be exacerbated. Employees know their jobs are only as secure as management’s next “clever” idea or the next hidden agenda.

There is a “Sword of Damocles” over people’s jobs and lives, which arrives suddenly but does not disappear nearly as fast. As Cicero said: there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms”. Restructuring, especially where it is not well defined, communicated, executed as communicated, and then clearly ENDED, creates a sustained fearfulness that eats away at the heart of employee’s commitment.

Here is where empathy comes in:

The people that are affected by the the CEO’s next clever idea, mostly live their whole lives paycheck to paycheck; knowing just how many trips a tank of fuel will get them; how much food they can eat each day to have food at the end of the fortnight; scared of the financial impact of sudden doctors visits, sick or injured pets; car trouble, and broken household implements. House maintenance, holidays, car maintenance are all carefully budgeted for and planned, in terms of cash flow.

Often, families sail close to the wind and can be caught in a cash flow crisis not of their own making. They can enter such a devastating process already stressed, fearful, unable to cope with the new workplace stress because financially, the precipice was already near. There is no backlog of savings or a nest egg. It takes a certain earning capacity to easily create those resources, and not everyone has both that, and the discipline required. These are people naturally and rightly concerned about sudden unavoidable expenses. Insecure and dependent on you as the CEO for their security.

The sudden news of restructuring and redundancy does not bring the shadow of financial pressure nearer, with time to prepare… it darkens it immediately into night!

A quick but revealing question – does the change leader/proponent even begin understand what that kind of life is like? I am fairly confident they do not. Does it affect how the chess pieces are moved about? I have worked in more than one company where the CEO’s unclaimed traveling expenses are equal to two employee’s annual salaries. Can that person really understand? I am not confident they can.

So my challenge to change agents, and change leaders, is to find a way to do what you must do, with empathy. With shared feeling, shared understanding, and deep caring. It doesn’t change WHAT you do, but it changes HOW you do it.

In my next post, I will consider the “How”.

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Thoughts on Accountability

Every time I read about accountability in the media, its about someone holding someone else accountable for the bad/naughty/inconsiderate thing they have done. We have a watchdog mentality, where someone, or some group of people, seems to be designated to be the conscience of society. They have the “right” – nay, the “obligation” it seems – to make a noise about something perceived to be “not right” and to help steer the ship towards the collective ideal. No doubt, this is generally a good thing.

So we have government ministers being exposed for poor management of public funds. We have doctors exposed for medical errors. We have corrupt police officers discovered and exposed. Cheating spouses being found out by private investigators. We have politicians with dirty secrets being exposed. We have sting operations that uncover fraud, or drug smuggling, or whatever. And we have the media in its self appointed role of watcher, under the banner “The people have the right to know”.

This has become what we call “accountability”. Self appointed watchers, out to catch transgressors. And people trying to keep secrets from being exposed, in a weird game of cat and mouse.

But what if that is not what accountability really is? What if we have lost the core meaning? What if a transcendent value has become a mere shadow of what it should be, as values shift from “I shouldn’t do …” to “I shouldn’t get caught doing …”.

“Accountability” is defined as the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.”

It has nothing to do with who is watching, and everything to do with the humility to be governed, overseen and protected by the insight and care of others.

In fact, making accountability about “being caught” cheapens the whole concept completely. Accountability is about being of such character and humility that one avoids even the appearance of evil, the appearance of wrong-doing, by deliberately creating a witness, or even a counsel of witnesses, to one’s life. Its about seeking out the protection of wise guidance and good friends. And the benefits of being fully known by another. Submitting openly and willingly to inspection, for the purpose of standing on a foundation of complete integrity.

Anyone being “held accountable” by someone else, simply has no idea. We do it, ourselves, so that nobody else has to do it.

THAT is accountability.

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