For some reason, most of our brains are programmed to assume the worse. it can take me one bad phone call to go from a good day to living under a bridge in a GE refrigerator box. Yet why do we assume that change can only mean catastrophe?
When asked by colleagues about the future, I answer honestly that the winners will be those who are best able to adapt. In my experience, employees of organizations facing change fall into one of four quadrants in my hypothetical grid, on which the vertical axis is labeled “Will To Change” and the horizontal axis is labeled “Skills Required.” Each quadrant requires a specific set of actions to motivate those who fall within them.
THE STARS: HIGH SKILL/HIGH WILL
Keep them informed and stay out of their way. These individuals are your stars and your advocates. Not only do they understand what you are trying to accomplish, they can help reinforce the key tenets you are trying to drive home through the organization. A leader’s job is to have vision, mission, strategy and structure. You must depend on your stars to drive your plan. You need at least 20% of your team to be stars to have a fighting chance to achieve your goals. Don’t test the seas of change without them.
MISMATCHES: LOW SKILL/LOW WILL
Time to make a change. Many firms make the mistake of working around their underperformers. Over time, these individuals become a toxic influence. No one wakes up every day consciously determined to be unhappy. Most of us want what we all want—security, respect and a few free sandwiches in the lunchroom. There are no bad people, only the right person in the wrong job or the right person at the wrong time in a firm’s evolution. Management owes it to these individuals to help them find a role inside or outside the firm that meets their skill set.
BYSTANDERS: HIGH SKILL/LOW WILL
Engage them, but watch for wire-cutters. Employers and colleagues exist in a marriage of sorts in which sometimes one partner changes. When we begin to grow apart or value different things, someone gets left behind. Bystanders often understand what the firm is trying to do, but they don’t buy into the vision. Bystanders want to be convinced that there is a return on investment before they will follow your vision. Bystanders are important because most of them are potential stars just waiting for more information. They do not like unilateral fiats or announcements from on high. High-skill employees buy in to change initiatives when they clearly understand management’s motives.
There is a fine line between being a bystander and being a saboteur. Generally, saboteurs wear all black and always carry wire-cutters in their hip pockets. But some are harder to spot. Coming to fully believe in the company mission, vision and strategy can be a gradual process. When bystanders come to believe, they can become stars.
Change happens from within. External pressure to “change or else” is an unsustainable sprint in the marathon of value creation. Show me a saboteur, and I will show you someone who has emotionally checked out. It may take a year for an employee who has already checked out emotionally to resign. Enormous damage can occur in that time. If you have a lot of bystanders, you need to work on culture. It’s the core DNA of any successful team. It’s about moving from “I” to “We.” As one business author put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
NEWBIES: LOW SKILL/HIGH WILL
You know the old adage about teaching a man to fish. Many firms have stopped becoming learning organizations. Part of the intellectual and emotional buy-in that gold-medal firms enjoy arises when people believe they are viewed as an asset and an investment.
Leaders need to be honest with their employees, share expectations and review performance. Employees want to believe that the company is vested in their success. The key is frequent and regular feedback and milestone assessment periods to ensure that no gaps exist concerning an employee’s status within the firm.
Ultimately, the strongest culture is forged from heterogeneous personalities and abilities. In a service-based economy, emotionally intelligent leaders will succeed over their authoritarian counterparts because they have won the trust of their greatest assets: their people. Leadership can be thankless, and sometimes it means cutting off a finger to save the entire body. But the leader who seeks to understand before being understood will thrive. The key is communication, candor, caring and, sometimes, a twisted sense of humor.