Want Coworkers to Change? Try Selling Them the Brooklyn Bridge!

I was in San Francisco last month as the city celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Several articles I read out there spoke to the engineering marvel of this bridge, its construction representing a huge leap forward in how bridges would be built.  Then I thought of how we cope with great change–and I recalled the building of The Brooklyn Bridge.

Change can be a killer of brilliant strategies and hoped-for organizational success. When I inventory potential “change-killers,” one that always comes to mind is something our parents didn’t tell us!  Surely there isn’t any one of us who as a child wasn’t denied permission to do something by an elder.  Remember asking for the reason?  We were told “Because I said so!”  The same logic was thrown at us when we were admonished for having done some act or behavior that to our young minds seemed perfectly fine, like no big deal.

Of course, sometimes no explanation for being chewed out is required—the behavior is clearly wrong on the face of it. When my son was turned in for putting his younger sister down our second-story laundry chute “To see if she would fit,” he didn’t seem at all surprised that no explanation accompanied my astounded, semi-explosive reaction. But when the issue is not negative behavior or a potential danger to consider, but simply that change is in the offing, management often acts just like an omniscient parent. It’s as if they had attended the all-knowing Wizard of Oz School of Leadership.  And we remember what a humbug he was and how shallow was the depth of the Wizard’s real knowledge and wisdom, don’t we?  Yet to many managers, unquestioned obedience is the order of the moment when change is afoot. It’s often an echo of “Because I said so!”

Instead of decreeing silent obedience when meaningful changes are coming down the road, leaders need to tell coworkers WHY change is necessary before they get to the HOW it will occur.  Because for most employees, the HOW is harder to buy into than the WHY.  Knowing the WHY and having it repeated is a comfort to them and makes it easier for leaders to implement the HOW in good time.  So when someone comes back and asks again “Why are we doing this?” feel easy in reminding them of what you’ve already defined for them–to get to a better place!

Before I tell you how I handled the WHY and HOW sides of the change process, there is one issue that sometimes takes priority.  It’s what I call the “personal welfare issue.” I have dealt with numerous acquired companies being subsumed into a parental entity. In sitting down with the CEO (often the founder) of the acquired group, I saw that they were eager and enthusiastic to tell the troops the strategic fit and benefits that the corporate marriage will produce.

True.  But first, I would remind the CEO, for many of his employees there are numerous questions that take priority, issues on the front shelf of their consciousness:  “Will I still have a job after the merger?” “Will I have the same office at the same location?” “Will I have the same boss, the same salary and healthcare plans?”  As Dale Carnegie has demonstrated, in any negotiation the opposite party is first and foremost concerned with what is in it for him or her.  Understand, of course, that in some cases answers to every personal concern may not be available. In that case, tell them so—honesty is key.

Having been associated with several fast-growing companies–it was really fun!–I learned that our strategic mindset made the ability to embrace change a cultural necessity for the entire company.  Often I began the process by talking face to face with my direct reports. My first goal was to provide information that engaged their rational minds. That is usually fairly straightforward.  My most important goal, however, was to jumpstart a positive emotional response in the sensitive “personal-welfare” areas of the change.

As Chip and Dan Heath masterfully explain in their book Switch–How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Broadway Books, 2010), facts are important to give direction to our rational brain while never forgetting that it’s our emotional mind that must be engaged if we want a genuinely enthusiastic commitment to the plans at hand–no play-acting allowed by either group, management or employees.  The Heath brothers use an analogy created by the psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt to support their contention: “Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.”  That image is a stark reminder that a battle of wills on what direction to go and what changes to adopt is far from a fair fight. Not only will the Elephant almost always get its way, but the Elephant is an essential player in bringing about change. You can’t do it without him.  Look at the picture again and ask: Who has the most horsepower?

Recognize that there are reciprocating emotional components to change that are HUGE among your employees on every level and must be dealt with. The first thing required is to quash the negative emotion of fear–the Elephant heading for the exits. To do this I give real-life, recent examples of companies–really successful companies, who found themselves at a crossroad no different from the one we now face. I remind my reports that those companies faced up to the same demons that sometimes nest in our minds when we take on any great endeavor, and I specify the demons by name.

Next I show what other companies did to conquer their doubts. More specifically, I address the skill sets required to succeed. These are the same skill sets that we must possess or nurture among our leaders.  The fact is that no matter how great the change required, it is in most ways garden variety because others have faced and overcome similar challenges and they have done so time and again. For good measure, I also talk about companies that did not succeed and show why. Losers litter the streets of corporate America.  We do no one any benefit if we deny the fact, turning away from discussing and knowing the details of those failures. If you have picked the right team, they won’t want a second reminder of their possible fate.  But you have to tell it once, again for honesty’s sake.

Once we are on our way to extinguishing any thoughts that what we face is unique and impossible, the gratifying part of the process begins–that part when the Elephant becomes fully committed and bonds with his Rider, looking after him and supporting him, just as the Rider has been taking care of his Elephant. We fire up reciprocity by igniting the loftiest emotions of our human kind. Leaders give at this point a pep talk on steroids. Coaches in sports do it all the time, and so do good schoolteachers as well as coaches in the business world.

They all do it by telling stories. It’s really up to you to decide which stories will do the trick. The most fitting are the ones you yourself are drawn to.  Iconic figures in the business world, like Steve Jobs, offered his coworkers countless tales celebrating mankind’s indomitable perseverance, intelligence, and courage in the face of adversity. Personally, I like to tell stories that are not always on point in a corporate sense but fascinating in so many different ways as to make each listener and reader recognize the immense potential lodged in each of us.

Although my engineering skills top out at changing a light bulb, I am a junkie for the stories behind great engineering feats. The building of the Hoover Dam, the serial attempts to build the Panama Canal, the list is goes on. But my favorite is the building of the Brooklyn Bridge! I promise you that if you read a respected historical account of its construction and of its designer German immigrant John Augustus Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who completed the bridge even after enduring a paralyzing injury, you will never doubt the ability of almost any one of us or any organization, for that matter, to conquer the most vexing problems.  Read the entire story as told by David McCullough in his book The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

My friends, in so many ways life is a continuum of constantly putting all that occurs into perspective. With that in mind, remember that change is brought about by instilling in yourself and in others a sense of inevitable success. It takes a well-thought-through plan and some really neat stories to make it happen smoothly, however, so neglect either part of that algorithm at your peril.  And if you’re not partial to bridge-building, perhaps a story about the training of elephants will do the trick!

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About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at www.SantoCosta.com
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