I've been checking in with clients and business colleagues. It's one part my need to connect with someone outside of my home, one part concern for the health and well-being of those in my circle, and one part an internal drive to be helpful to others. In the sharing of our experiences, a common theme has emerged. We have days when we are powered up and working hard on our businesses (even though much of that work does not directly produce revenue). And days when summoning the focus and attention to read and understand the latest small business guidance sucks all the energy out of our bodies.
We are experiencing change fatigue. It is the same as the exhaustion you feel when you start a new job. There is stress associated with learning new systems, processes, even relationships. There's a discomfort in transitioning from being at the top of your game to starting over and establishing credibility anew. You come home with your energy tanks fully depleted. Typically the acclimation is complete within six weeks, however, and we've adapted to our new normal.
With COVID-19, complexity abounds. The time horizon is likely months. The target, healthy at work, is unclear. The requirements are going to be in flux for months. And at the heart of it all, people's lives are at stake. Combine this with weeks of stress from having your business shuttered temporarily, and you have the perfect storm for your body to betray you mentally and physically. So, I offer you some tips to help you fend off change fatigue and stabilize your motivation as you power through the next phase of change.
ONE. Adopt a change mindset.
For more tips on navigating change successfully, check out my article from last week, Designing the New Normal.
Even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to climb towards an unknown apex, the conversation shift to re-opening suspended businesses began this past week. People sent home to rely on unemployment to cover their debts and household expenses are anxious to relieve this stress. Owners of shuttered businesses who need revenue to cover fixed costs and inventory commitments are eager to open their doors. Consumers, limiting their shopping to essential retailers, are keen to have access to businesses they love.
I live in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear speaks to our citizens daily. He is a steadfast beacon of truth, compassion, and thoughtful leadership. He has charged business owners with the mission to begin planning and preparing now, well in advance of restrictions lifting, for the next step, which is not a return to business as usual, but a coronavirus required adaptation.
As a practitioner of change management for my entire career, I applaud Governor Beshear's wisdom and guidance. The change before us is unlike the business challenges most of us have navigated. This task requires us to "build the plane while we are flying it." I expect decisions from the government to trickle almost daily and frequently change as information and learning emerge. Success will require agility and an ability to improvise in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.
Despite this, there are lessons from change management that can help us navigate our future more successfully. Today I want to start a conversation to share the best practices of change by focusing on what I consider to be the most important pitfall to avoid - DON'T CONFUSE COMPLIANCE WITH COMMITMENT.
You can look at almost every area of your life and see examples of this statement in action, but here's an example from my childhood.
I am the younger sibling in my family. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with children, and riding bicycles was a favorite pastime. Because I was three years younger than my sister, she was allowed to ride her bike further than I. My restricted area was the street right in front of my house. Unlike parents of today, my mother did not sit outside and supervise us while we played. She sent us out to play for hours at a time while she did housework. We knew the rules but successfully skirted them without getting caught on many occasions. Thus, emboldened one sunny day, I rode my bike to the end of the street, thinking that my mother was too busy to notice. As you have guessed, I was wrong and swiftly punished for disobeying the rules. Why did I do it? It was simple. I didn't comply because, in my mind, I could do anything that my older sister could do, and therefore this restriction was unnecessary. As a parent, I now understand the dangers of an unsteady rider on a heavily trafficked street and the difference in the awareness and responsibility contained in that three year age gap. But at that moment in my life, I complied when observed and otherwise ignored the rules. My agreement lacked genuine commitment.
As evidenced by my 25 years coaching leaders through change, the behavior I described from my childhood is also present in adulthood. It is easy to ascribe this behavior to defiant personality types, but psychologists studying human behavior affirm that this response is typical. As stated in one of my favorite quotes from the late '90s, "People will tolerate your conclusions but act on their own."
Here are three tips to help you avoid this massive pothole on the road to change.
ONE. Communicate about the change early, frequently, and honestly.
Leaders frequently make the mistake of trying to package everything into a tidy solution, as if it is a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift that they unveil. It is an easy trap to fall into when you have the personal expectation that you must have all of the answers. The difficulty is two-fold. First, you have wrestled with the problem and arrived at the solution for weeks or months. This time is a benefit that your employees do not have. Suddenly they are expected to sprint the distance you've covered in a one-hour meeting. Secondly, they do not have insight into the journey that shaped your decisions. They do not see all the alternatives that you studied, their insufficiencies, and reasons for dismissal. The compromises and hard limitations are not visible. In short, they experience the change as something done to them that they feel expected to accept without question.
TWO. Involve the users in the design.
Automakers learned this lesson many years ago when they turned to women for market research insights about the family car. Mothers experienced the tribulations of fitting multiple car seats, strollers, and other kid gear in a vehicle that also needed space for the unexpected stop to restock at a store. They knew the importance of always having drinks and snacks on hand for grumpy children who needed to refuel. They understood that age differences require individualized entertainment options and the associated power access for lengthy trips. Mothers were subject matter experts about how cars are an extension of the spaces in which people live, not merely a means of transportation.
Unless you perform the job every day, it is highly likely that you know the details intimately enough to sit in the design seat alone. Discrepancies often exist between written procedures and daily execution. Those closest to the work often see opportunities others would miss. Additionally, these individuals have valuable insight about potential concerns from their fellow employees and prove helpful in discussions regarding communication of the changes.
THREE. Choose to co-create versus dictate.
Last week I shared thoughts about the importance of listening and the skill of generative listening, which shifts the intention to uncovering a shared future. Change is a dynamic process. A mindset of learning and adaptation facilitates the open exchange of ideas and, ultimately, the co-creation of a new way forward that everyone chooses to embrace. Having been heard and understood, having participated, the natural outcome is commitment. If you find yourself defending, convincing, or compelling, you are on the compliance path. Stop yourself and, in the words of Stephen Covey, seek first to understand and then to be understood. Focus on hearing mutual agreement. You may be shocked to find five percent or less divergence in the thinking. Then start building from points of agreement and get deeply curious about understanding what underlies the other ideas. It takes a little longer, but the ROI is worth it.
Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular won the 2020 Warren Bennis Prize for their article "The Leader as Coach." The prize honors the previous year's best Harvard Business Review article on leadership and is presented jointly by HBR and the USC Marshall School of Business. 👉https://trib.al/XPrBWKT
It was gratifying to see this announcement on my LinkedIn feed a few weeks ago. I had spent the formative years of my career in corporations laying the building blocks for this transition. I was on the frontlines of US manufacturing in the 1990s, implementing team-based approaches to management and work. I was in corporate headquarters in 2000, creating leadership curriculum and performance management systems to influence the shift from command and control leadership to coaching-based leadership. I was a pied-piper, luring the up-and-coming leaders while trying to overcome the reality of the leadership style from the top of the organization. Now, 30 years later, there was evidence that the shift was taking hold.
So what does it mean to lead as a coach? In the conclusion of their article, Ibarra and Scoular define the coach's job as follows: "to draw energy, creativity, and learning out of the people with whom they work." It sounds simple enough, and yet when you begin to recount your own stories of your bosses, most describe traditional command-and-control practices. Ibarra explains why by sharing her experience in the classroom using a role-play scenario in which a direct report is underperforming.
"When presented with this scenario, nine out of 10 executives decide they want to help their direct report do better. But when they’re asked to role-play a coaching conversation with him, they demonstrate much room for improvement. They know what they’re supposed to do: “ask and listen,” not “tell and sell.” But that doesn’t come naturally, because deep down they’ve already made up their minds about the right way forward, usually before they even begin talking to the employee. So their efforts to coach typically consist of just trying to get agreement on what they’ve already decided. That’s not real coaching—and not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well."
Unfortunately for all of us, human psychology and years of training work against us. Here is what I mean.
We learn to listen from a young age. We practice through interactions with our parents, then our teachers and friends. Our early listening focuses on rules and compliance so that we stay safe and out of trouble. As we grow, we use listening as a learning tool. Our classroom learning model centers on students hearing teachers impart knowledge which they are to store and regurgitate at a later time. Students, called upon during class, demonstrate their listening by answering the teacher's questions accurately. Behavioral conditioning, which pairs listening with being right, begins, and is reinforced for over a decade. As we mature and learn to express opinions that differ from others around us, we focus more on what we want to say (and why we are right), and our listening skills take a back seat.
Coaching in the context of leadership, however, requires more profound levels of listening, as shown in the picture below.
The most commonly practiced is habitual and factual listening because of the reinforcement loop described above. This conditioning is so ingrained in our thinking and actions that it requires intentional focus to overcome.
To move to the next level, mindful listening, the intention shifts to creating a meaningful connection with others. It requires us to let go of being right and open ourselves to hearing and appreciating a perspective that differs from our own. The conversation broadens beyond tasks and makes space for the expression of emotions without fear of judgment or reprisal. Management and leadership training from the late decades of the last century taught active or reflective listening skills. These focused on naming emotions expressed verbally or non-verbally, paraphrasing what the other person said, and asking questions to test your understanding and solicit further details while suspending your judgment or desire to jump in with a fix. The point was to be fully present and convey that you heard the other person. Stephen Covey coined this Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood in his 1989 book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
The deepest level, generative listening, is the domain of real coaches. It requires the listener to believe that potential and possibility are a wellspring to be tapped within others. It completely flips the script from the solution giver to the solution seeker. It requires faith that the answer lies within the wisdom of the group and puts the responsibility on the leader to create the conversational conditions necessary to allow it to emerge. The generative listener takes cues from what is said, and also what is not said, to ask probing questions that uncover ideas and connect thinking in new ways that energize and formulate a future that is co-created.
Right now, many of our work habits have changed as our offices have moved into our homes. This disruption, however, also creates favorable conditions for retraining our brains and adopting new practices. If you are a leader, this is the time to become a better listener. Your staff needs safety to discuss their grief, fear, and uncertainty. Your company needs the collective wisdom of their employees to chart the path forward. You have the opportunity to build new leadership muscles and emerge from COVID-19 as a stronger leader. You have it in your power to make these possible by shifting your intention and sharpening your listening skills.
Late 2017 I accepted the guidance of mentors and started a blog on my website. I resisted this advice for years because it seemed daunting to come up with ideas every week, and I thought that I didn't have that much of interest to say. Even though I take a break for a few months each year, I have kept my commitment and have never struggled to find a topic that sparked my passion for sharing with you.