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The only constant is change

For years, in my work in the corporate world, I’ve heard the slogan “change is the only constant,” but it has always seemed hollow to me. Instead of developing a workforce and leaders who are nimble and capable of constantly adapting, many organizations in the business world are, in fact, having a very difficult time adjusting to change. Sudden changes in their operating environment seem to cause them to hit the reactive, panic button, laying off employees; slashing development, improvement, and quality programs; cutting off contracts with suppliers; and retreating into downsizing.

Even though companies and organizations say they will make their cuts strategically, this is most often not what happens. Instead, the cuts often turn out to be “across the board” and irrational, damaging the organization’s short-term and future interests, while preserving the deadwood and the obsolete. The best and the brightest are often the ones who “take the package” and move on.

Needless to say, this plays havoc with organizational culture. I’ve seen it happen many times: Employees quickly become anxious, fearful and cynical; they stop seeing themselves as having a long-term future within the organization. Their loyalty to the company, and sometimes to each other, declines dramatically. It’s “everyone for themselves.” The loss is more than financial. The biggest cost is to the spirit of the organization: demoralization; lost confidence, morale and investment; and a decline in people’s commitment to, and ownership of the company.

In one organization I know, the CEO reacted immediately to one of the recent downturns, pulling the trigger on across-the-board cuts without consultation. In doing so, he destroyed a brilliantly successful change initiative that was under way, which had already made a dramatic improvement in the company’s bottom line. Needless to say, when the market began to recover, he lost a significant number of his best people, who had just been waiting for a chance to jump ship.

Here’s another example: A division head of a global company took a completely different approach, for which he endured some tough scrutiny from the head office and other divisions. He trimmed expenses very carefully and strategically ‐ first by laying off a very few under-performers, and then by gathering his leadership team and having in-depth conversations about how to implement further cost reductions while boosting morale. People agreed to switch roles and take on more responsibility, working hard to make the changes successful. The division was the only one in the company to achieve its targets throughout the toughest time, and the division head attracted support and admiration from across the company ‐ as well as a promotion.

The young adults who are now graduating from universities do not expect that they will be able to stay in a firm for the long term, or that the firm will be loyal to them. The concept of “job for life” has long gone by. Therefore, they are only prepared to make a limited investment in a workplace that may well use them up and spit them out. They also want a more balanced life than their parents had, and they are not willing to sacrifice their own families, relationships and children to the interests of an employer.

In the coming years, companies will be forced to look hard at their people practices if they want to survive the ups and downs and come out the other side with an engaged, motivated, aligned workforce, and a loyal clientele that will continue to buy their products and services.

It may be too early to tell, but it seems as if we are all learning to live with more instability than before. The recession that started in 2008 has never really ended, and the roller-coaster seems constantly off again.

There is no gyroscope for managing organizations through uncertainty and upheaval, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that a set of constant cultural or people-values and a long-term vision are more important than ever ‐ because the era of constant change has finally arrived, and slogans alone just aren’t going to cut it.

If you want your strategy to work, don’t underestimate the critical role of middle managers

The following scenario unfolds every day in organizations of every size across the globe:  The CEO and his top management team unveil a new strategic plan or a new “change initiative” to dozens of executives and managers the next level down.  Senior management implores these mid-level managers to “get on board” the initiative because it is critical to the success – and sometimes even the survival – of the organization.  After the top executive presents the plan (often in an “all hands” meeting), the mid-level managers ramble out into the hall, grumbling about what they just heard.  The “un” words fill the air: “unrealistic,” “unfathomable,” “unnecessary,” “unclear,” “unwise.”

For years, mid-level managers have been expected to “get on board” their companies’ strategic initiatives without tough questions and, most of all, without dissent.  Today, however, a grudging attitude of “we’ll get in line even if we don’t like it” is actually worse than outright insubordination – especially for the senior executives.  If the senior leaders of the company become aware that some managers do not support their directives, they at least can take instant and corrective action.  Not so when middle managers nod “yes” and think and behave “no.”  It could take the CEO and his senior leaders months if not more time to realize the execution of his strategy is going awry.  And by that time, it may be too late.  A new product may be dead on arrival.  A major cost-cutting program may eke out incremental savings and fail to resolve a huge pricing disadvantage. A quality improvement initiative may be too little, too late to stave off mass customer defections.

Let’s be honest – every strategy is an educated guess about what a company must do to improve performance, and some are more educated than others.  Thus, given that no strategy is perfect, companies need middle managers and employees who will point out and correct the flaws quickly.  This is crucial today given that every company is part of the global economy with fierce competition.

The middle managers are so important because they sit at the critical junction between vision/strategy and execution. In addition, while senior executives tend to move around more frequently for their careers, many middle managers tend to stay in their roles for longer periods of time. This makes them more seasoned and knowledgeable about what it takes to make things happen in the organization.  If they get authentically on board with the company’s strategy there is a high chance of success because the middle managers will go out of their way to coordinate and drive effective actions, even in a highly political environment. But, if they are not genuinely on board, the middle managers will say all the right things but go through the motions, pay lip service and as a result momentum will be stagnated. I have seen this happen many times.

But even with the most ingenious and clearest of business strategies,  middle managers will never fully commit to the plan and go to all ends to make it work if they don’t believe or trust their leaders sincerity, courage, competence and concern.

  • Sincerity and honesty about what’s really going on in the company (including the reason why the firm needs a new direction) as well as what will happen next (good news and bad news).
  • Courage and resolve to hear the truth and make the hard decisions required for the strategy to work.
  • Competence in managing the strategy and the changes associated with it over time, including all the challenges and opportunities that could appear along the way.
  • Concern for those who will be affected by it – for the human consequences of the plan, as  all new strategies wreak major workplace changes.

 

As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch put it, “To have a fighting chance, companies need to get every employee, with every idea in their heads and every morsel of energy in their bodies, into the game.”  This means middle managers must be totally committed to their company’s strategy in order for it to work.

 

Don’t accept cynicism and resignation

Early June 2014 I published an article in the online Careers in Government publication called It takes courage to say NO to cynicism and resignation. I also posted a blog about the same topic on April 10th, 2014.

As you can tell, I feel passionate about this topic. I believe we were all born with the innate ability and right to express ourselves, live a life of meaning, and be fulfilled and happy. Unfortunately, so many people don’t live and behave this way, especially in organizations.

I was facilitating a session with 150 managers of a highly unionized division of a well-known technology company.  During the introductions a veteran supervisor stood up and introduced himself in the following way: “My name is Bill. I don’t remember how long I have been here, but I have 64 months to go” and he sat down. The room went silence but you could hear the cynical giggles spreading throughout the crowd.

With more than 30 years under his belt, Bill was clearly uninspired, cynical and resigned. I could imagine him coming to work every day opening his locker and marking off another day on his hanging calendar. I would describe his mindset as equivalent to a “prisoner doing time.”

I wish I could tell you that Bill is the exception. So many people seem to feel powerless and unable to make a difference in their job on a daily basis. I often ask people at all levels of organizations this question: “Do you feel you can make a significant difference in shaping the things that are most important to you; things like the priorities of the organization, the collaboration of teams around you and the overall morale and excitement of their teams?”

People have great insights and ideas about how to improve things and how to make their work environment more productive and enjoyable. But they often don’t feel they can apply these ideas and make the difference they truly want to make.

When people stop believing that things can change they tend to get discouraged and disengaged. They stop pursuing certain opportunities and challenges. A very small minority of people physically resigns and leaves. But, most don’t. A few people make feeble attempts to change things only to find themselves thwarted, hence falling back into line.

But, most people simply continue about their jobs with minimal enthusiasm, ownership and drive. They are physically there but often mentally checked out. They come to meetings but don’t speak up, volunteer their ideas or take risks. They comply and survive but don’t lead, express themselves or thrive.

I am not trying to portray an overly harsh and gloomy picture of reality. This is the norm in most organizations, even the most successful ones. I see it everywhere.

The good news is that we NEVER have to settle for this predicament. We can ALWAYS make the choice to take a bold stand and not accept or adopt the cynicism, resignation and negativism that surround us. We can fully express ourselves and communicate authentically and effectively at all times.

It does take courage to say NO to negativism, cynicism and resignation – at work and in life – to ALWAYS stand for optimism, possibilities and your ability to make a difference. But, that space is fully available for us.

Here are a few tips on how to stay positive and empowered:

  • Be courageous. If you want to be a leader and say NO to cynicism you need to be courageous and take a stand. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather embracing your fears and acting in a way that is true to your values and commitments, even if people around you are in a different space.
  • Don’t engage in negative conversations. Don’t entertain, engage in or initiate negative or cynical conversations around you. These are toxic and cancerous to the organization but more important – to you personally. If you want to make a difference address issues and complaints directly with the appropriate people. If you don’t intend to address certain issues don’t contribute to the background noise about them.
  • Associate only with positive, like-minded people. When you associate with cynical people it will pull you down. If you associate with like-minded positive people it will pull you up and keep you in good shape to contribute and make a difference.
  • Live up to your stand. Look for little things to do every day that express your commitment and forward your stand to make a difference. There is a great quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that I love: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Follow her advice and you’ll become better and better at it.