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Sandra Wiley
Sandra Wiley

During change, seek first to understand

Without trust, honesty, and open communication, change in an organization is impossible. This lesson in change management illustrates how to recognize and remove roadblocks.  

September 19, 2013
By Sandra Wiley

My consulting company recently embarked on an adventure to move many of our technology platforms to cloud-based solutions that would work collaboratively. It changed everything about how we work—from our processes to systems training to our work habits. 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. The stress has been evident in our behaviors, our communication, and in the other projects that have been affected by the technology project itself. I think we will someday look back on this time and realize it was worth it. But there have been times when each of us has wondered what we were thinking when we said this was a good idea.

I believe in the importance of trust, honesty, and open communication among the team. Without these basic traits, change in an organization is impossible. 

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 blunders with our team. In our effort to remain positive and lead the team to stay the course, we delivered a strong message: “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 is that we ignored some of the conflict that was starting to happen, and some on the team thought management did not want to hear the negative messages, so they simply went quiet. Instantly, one of our core values—open communication—was being tested. When our management group gave the impression that we valued the message of “keep going; it will be OK,” 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.”  Regardless of what words we use, the outcome is one of complete respect because as a leader you stepped back, listened, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and helped that person to work through his or her 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, because 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 differently as we move forward with our team? Here are a few things that I believe will help:

Know your triggers. Specific words or actions can trigger deep misunderstanding. In our case, every time somebody identified a frustration, we would respond with reassurance. To many, however, the message was “get over it.” 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. 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. 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 other people 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. In a recent meeting, a team member said, “Everything is OK,” when discussing a project that had been frustrating her. But her facial expression and body language said the opposite. 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 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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Sandra Wiley is COO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and is a regular speaker on topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.