The power of rhetoric to change the world

I listened today to the original footage of the speech Martin Luther King gave where he declared “I have a dream….”  It was a powerful reminder of how words can change the world. 50 years later, much has been accomplished, and much remains. I asked some colleagues to share with me what they have done in the last day, week, month to really connect with someone who is different from them. Different in visible ways, and in less visible ways.  What have they done to include someone in their world?  The answers were encouraging, startling, sad, and hopeful. What would you say?

To see the speech, check it out:


Why I love resistance

Last week I was in a meeting with some clients talking about culture change. The thing about intentionally changing a culture is that it smacks of social engineering, which is exactly what it actually is; it is just that people don’t like to say that out loud. While we were chatting, I made the comment that “I love resistance”, which provoked some laughter, and someone said “you are the first person I’ve ever heard say that”.

Here’s why I love resistance:

  1. It means people care
  2. It means people are listening
  3. It means change is actually happening

Too often I hear clients say things like…… ‘we need to change, but we don’t want anyone to know’, or ‘what we are really doing is a huge change, but we want it to feel small to everyone’, or ‘we are packaging this as a technology change, but we are really changing the entire culture of the business’.

These elusive tactics are great for creating almost no resistance, because you aren’t actually asking anyone to do anything particularly productive in terms of change. You are asking them to carry on, but do it differently. If you aren’t willing to provoke resistance, you probably aren’t really willing to change.

Change management has created a veneer of a neat and tidy process through which people can easily step from one place to another, with predictable and manageable (and measureable) results. While this has helped to organize our approach and design of change experiences, it has had an unintended consequence of giving senior managers the idea that change can be risk free, a jaunty endeavor filled with happy smiling people, one in which bad things don’t happen, because it has all been so beautifully managed. Resistance is the inconvenient truth in all of this. If your change effort never encountered resistance from anyone, you probably didn’t really change very much. When you see or feel resistance to something you know is important to your business, lean into it. It is the best indicator that you are actually going somewhere.

The Power of the Middle

A few months ago I wrote a post on the power of middle management.  Too often we disparage the middle, but in fact they are incredibly powerful assets to most organizations, doing far more than ‘pushing paper’.  They are the glue in many companies – the conduits through which tremendous work gets done. When underleveraged they become sluggish and disfunctional for sure, but done right, a strong middle management can make a company great.  Unfortunately, too often we make middle management out to be a mill or mindless work, or a sandtrap from which there is no escape.  We lean on middle managers to do a mix of critical thinking and rote tasks that can create a crushing sense of overload without corresponding value.

In addition, these days we seem to have such a hang up on wanting to be ‘leaders’ instead of ‘managers’, as if there were a way to be one and not the other in 90% of roles in businesses today.  This language creates an automatic pecking order – leaders are somehow better than ‘just a manager’, and people who don’t manage to rise out of middle management over time are treated as underperformers, or ‘left behind’.

I suggest we let go of the baggage associated with “management” and remember the purpose and what is accomplished when strong management is an available resource.  When you design for VUCA, the middle becomes even more important because it provides a space for stability in a variable world.  Giving people opportunities to move around and grow within ‘the middle’ as well as moving up is critically important.  Additionally, figuring out what motivates people at this level is tough to do in an aggregate way, in part because people’s motivations change as their lives change.  If you want to unlock the power of the middle, you are going to have to get personal.  Talking to individuals and figuring out growth plans that are right for them takes time, but it helps tremendously in terms of motivation and engagement.

Today the topic made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  Check it out if you are interested in reading more about what’s going on in middle management.



Employee Engagement – What the Survey Says

Gallup recently released their latest employee engagement survey results.  Gallup has been doing this survey for several years, and is able to show some interesting trends around engagement and its impact on the workplace. While I’m primarily a qualitative researcher, I see survey tools as powerful for showing trends, understanding macro level movement, and providing areas of focus or concern for employers who want to create higher engagement among employees.  I can certainly appreciate the logitudinal quality of the survey work being done on engagement, and how it contributes to our overall understanding of this phenomena.

This latest set of data illustrates the importance of employee engagement in the overall success of the business.  It also brings to light the importance of langauge and meaning over process and measurements when it comes to engagement.  Carefully defining ‘engagement’ and what it means to the organization writ large and to individuals is critically important. This can be done in terms of attributes or characteristics that have meaning to employees (for whom ‘engagement’ is ambigious and hard to enact when directed). Then, weaving those attributes into the day to day conversations around the organization becomes and actionable step for leaders, managers, independent contributors, and employees at large.

How you get to those attributes and characteristics for your own organization may require going beyond the survey. Practical experience tells me that they are highly localized even within companies, and how engagement is defined at a local level is critically important.  Asking quesitons about why engagement is important, what lack of engagement is doing, and what improvement would look like to you is a first step.  In parallel, understanding what people mean