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The Silence is Deafening . . .

December 23, 2009

New MindsetHave you ever noticed that organizational change initiatives are sometimes “sabotaged” by objections about which you had no clue? All of a sudden, out of the “clear blue sky,” comes a storm of reasons why a particular change can’t be made. They all seem pretty trivial. What’s behind them? When you ask, the silence is deafening.

Have you identified the topics that are “off limits” in your organization? It’s highly unlikely that you are without them. In their recent book, Reframing Change, Latting and Ramsey talk about how resistance to change is not because people don’t like change. It’s because people don’t like being changed. People may have reasons for not wanting to support a particular initiative that are not at all clear to project leaders. One example given was the initiative taken on by a middle manager to change the time of the group staff meeting. His boss was holding them late in the afternoon and they sometimes went past 6 PM making it difficult for employees with children or adult care responsibilities. Should be easy; it’s a reasonable request.

But the task turns out not to be as simple as just changing the time of the meeting. For lots of reasons, it’s much more complicated and the project expands into investigating quality of life for employees along with flexible work hours and other “family leave” issues. Pushback came from someone who was normally an early adopter. It finally becomes clear that all the discussion of “family leave” was very difficult for this person who was in a same gender relationship. The unspoken rule at this company was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So discussion of how to accommodate changes to the employee benefits was difficult at best.

There is a proverb from Spain that claims “Those who stay silent do not say nothing.” How do we create a culture in which it is safe to uncover, discuss and learn about the taboo topics? They may be around the human resource questions such as domestic partner issues, expected overtime or extra effort to “get ahead,” poor performers who are kept on because they are family members, or reporting misconduct by people in powerful positions. They may have something to do with perceptions about who supports a given business process thereby making it “sacrosanct.” What is important is to make sure the culture we create allows for safely uncovering and discussing these issues.

We can start with the obvious in shaping our corporate culture. We can make sure that the bearer of bad news is not summarily shot. We can make sure that supervisors and managers are not defensive when policies or procedures are questioned. We can make sure we gather performance information in a 360 degree fashion throughout the organization. And we can make sure that the HR department is a fair advocate for employees, not just the executive team. If our organization is open to learning at all levels, is willing to seek and actually listen to feedback, then we will have a vibrant, changing and improving organization.

What are the rules in your organization? Do you surface the “not discussable” issues and make them visible? Do you have a formal, anonymous whistleblower program? Is your suggestion box really used?

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