Why most management change fails

Let’s face it, change doesn’t fail or succeed, it just is. When we try to do something and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that change hasn’t happened, it just means the outcomes that we want haven’t been achieved. We need to understand the difference.

If I decide I want to get fit I might buy a pair of running shoes and commit to go jogging every morning before work.  After three weeks when I’m demotivated, tired and laying in bed longer than ever before, a change has occurred, just not the one that I intended. In my head I’d imagined this svelte, athletic new me who absolutely loved this new habit. In reality I developed a belief I couldn’t run, confirmed I didn’t like early mornings and chafed in places I didn’t know existed. If someone was in the future to suggest a run, I’d make my excuses and leave.

What does this mean in an organisational context?

Most of our employees and colleagues have experienced this sensation at work, however, the motivation for the original decision hasn’t been theirs. They’ve been subjected to multiple suggestions over the years that they need to go for the equivalent of a run.  And similar to the runner they start to form beliefs, “it won’t work”, “I don’t like it” or even “what’s the point?”.

Sometimes the most important “changes” that we make are choices to do nothing, rather than to do something. If we litter our organisations with initiatives, if we try to do too much that adds little value we start to create the sort of psychological fatigue that leads to beliefs that ultimately are counter productive to the changes that actually need to achieve. Through our actions we can cause the reaction that we then dub, “resistance to change”.

Nobody is resistant to change, we all make changes every single day. We shop with Amazon, send messages on our phones, we use satellite navigation systems and find love by swiping left or right. We are constantly changing and evolving. Organisations become resistant to change because of the experiences that have happened in the past, because of the belief systems that have developed and because of our inability to keep things simple and clear.

 

What can you do?

There are lots of things I’d like to change, ranging from my personal appearance, to my team’s results, to the political situation in pretty much most countries in the Western world. I have views and opinions and desires that in certain circumstances I may express, but on the whole, I know are broadly ineffective  I can’t change my genetics or the abilities of the players in the team, I don’t have a direct line to the Prime Minister or President.

A lot of our working life is like this. In work, as in the rest of our lives, there are things that we might like to change, that we might not be absolutely happy with, our job role, our team, our leadership. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of complaints about working life fall into one of these categories – probably only adding in “the commute” and “the canteen”.

There is one school of thought that simply says, that’s your lot. You are a cog in a machine and you need to accept your place. Keep your head down, go through the motions, do what needs to be done (and no more) and get to the end. That’s a pretty compelling strategy if you believe in an afterlife, for those that don’t it feels…somewhat  pointless.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll have the tree- hugging, granola eating brigade who will tell you to find purpose in even the most meaningless task, that joy and eternal peace await you if you could only change your way of thinking. My experience is that these people generally work from home in their pyjamas, have jobs that no-one would notice if they didn’t exist and last did a meaningful act when they evacuated their bowels in the morning.

So let me give you another view. I might not be able to change my appearance, but I can do the best I can with it. I can dress well, go to the gym, look after what I eat and take feedback on what looks good and doesn’t. I can’t make my team better,  but I can go along to the match and cheer from the first to the final whistle, doing everything I can to provide another positive voice. I can’t phone the prime minister, but I can get involved, I can vote or join a political party, I can campaign or stand as a representative.

I can’t do the whole, but I can do my part.

Life is about choice, but it is also about the acceptance of those aspects in our world that are uncontrollable. We might not be able to impact a new system being implemented, a new work routine, a change of CEO or a reorganisation. But we can absolutely choose how we interact with them, what we bring to them and how we want to be. If choice is about freedom, then this understanding is about peace. Being at peace with the things that we can and can’t influence and putting our energy where it counts the most.

Why we need to ban NDAs

Sometimes I think our profession is much like the British weather, we have an obsession in talking about its shortcomings, but yet nothing can be done to change it. My frustration is compounded in the rare moments where we genuinely have an opportunity to act for the betterment of the world of work, but instead choose to hide behind indecision and equivocation. There is no clearer example of this than the ongoing debate on the use of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in settlement agreements.

The broad reaction from the legal and HR professions (and their governing bodies) is weak and depressingly similar, “it depends on how they’re used”. Ultimately suggesting that the clauses themselves aren’t bad, it’s just the bad people (their members) who use them. This is akin to asking the National Rifle Association to opine on gun control. Because every NDA included in a settlement agreement will have had a lawyer draft it and another read it on behalf of the employee. 

Let’s just pause there for a second and let this sink in. In every case where a settlement agreement has been used with an NDA to silence a victim of sexual harassment, racial discrimination or bullying, the overwhelming likelihood is that a legal professional has not only acted for the perpetrator, but for the victim as well.  Let’s not let ourselves off the hook here either, the `HR profession is in many, if not most, cases entirely complicit too – they just don’t exist in all organisations. So is it a surprise that we argue for their continued usage?

In the same way that gun control is the only sensible way to ensure that people are protected  from the harm that these weapons can cause, the only way to ensure that NDAs are not incorrectly applied is to ban their use in settlement agreements. When I make this point the familiar riposte is to talk about business interests and confidentiality and make a bold statement that these are in the interests of the employee. This is intentional obfuscation, so let’s take some time to put these myths to bed. 

You can have a confidentiality clause without containing an NDA, in fact the Law Society describes it as follows, “Confidentiality clauses, which may include terms commonly referred to as non-disclosure agreements, within settlement agreements are used to stop commercial information from being shared inappropriately and to avoid reputational damage.” It is this last point that is central to their use, where clauses are inserted to prevent the employee from talking about the incident that led to the use of the agreement or indeed to disclose the existence of the agreement itself. No-one is talking about banning confidentiality clauses that reaffirm those that already exist in a contract of employment, just the use of NDAs to silence.

Now the idea that this is in some way in the interest of the employee. I’ve asked on numerous occasions for someone to give me an example where this is solely the case, where there is no interest in reciprocity from the organisation. Unsurprisingly, I’m still waiting to hear of one.  And of course the logic of this assertion is flawed in itself, because if non-disclosure was generally in the interest the employee, then they wouldn’t be looking to disclose it in the first place. The fact is that this argument is generally uses as a sinister arm twist, “it will be in your best interest if we say nothing about this matter…so you better not either…”.

NDAs are about power, they are about control, they are clauses that are used to silence those that are generally victims of organisations that have gone wrong. There may be the very odd case where they could legitimately be argued for, but their punitive use far outweighs any benefit. Every case of sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, intimidation and unfair treatment that leads to the use of such a clause is a terrible indictment on the HR profession and our colleagues in the legal profession too. There is only one safe answer and that is an outright ban. Until that comes about, until our professional bodies find their backbones, I ask you to take the lead and to change your practice now.

Trust starts in the words that we use

I think it goes without saying that large parts of society have an issue with trust. Whether it is trust in politicians, trust in the media or trust in business. Institutions that once were seen as being cohesive forces in society are now the perpetrators, if not originators, of societal fragmentation.

At the heart of this mistrust is our inability to speak openly and honestly about subjects that are of mass importance, to be clear about the impact of change, to face into the repercussions of our actions. I wrote a few weeks ago about a session I did a number of years ago where I portrayed a rather bleak future on the back of the introduction of technology and how it fell on deaf ears compared to the sugar coated, unicorn riding, emancipation argument being offered on the other side. I’ll bet my house on which one of us is right.

The point though isn’t the change itself, it is our inability to be honest about the implications. And this is something that we see everyday in organisations, in the same way that the “self employed” delivery driver being measured by the second doesn’t recognise the benefits of technology allowing an executive to answer their emails from the Bahamas, too often we communicate an artificial version of the future that just doesn’t match with the reality that people experience.

Last month, Tesco announced around 4,500 job cuts in order to “serve shoppers better”. That’s right, having fewer employees in stores will be better for shoppers. Well I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of one time I’ve been in any retail outlet and thought, “I wish there were fewer employees here to serve me”. Of course the reality is that Tesco needs to cut overheads in order to compete on price and maintain its dividend and one of the most effective ways of doing that is through staff numbers. So why can’t they say that?

If we are going to try to regain trust in our organisations, in business as a whole, then we need to start by being honest. That means being straight up about the good and the bad, it means being honest when things will have a negative impact, it means facing into the implications of the decisions that we make. It means treating employees (see also voters readers and viewers too) as grown ups who are able to understand when they are being told the truth and when they are being fed an institutional mistruth.

Our corporate norms reject ideas of candour, the call for palatable half truths. Our corporate norms, however, have got us into this situation. Maybe now is the time to reappraise. If we can’t be open and honest, we can never truly build trust.