The saying that people are afraid of change has been repeated so often it has become cliche! Sadly, it misses what is really going on when there is pushback at work. In this podcast, I’ll explain why people are not afraid of change, what they are really afraid of, and what that means when you’re trying to lead change at work.
You may think of the “leaders” in your organization as the ones at the top of the org chart, but true leadership isn’t dependent on a title or a reporting structure. It’s in how you treat and inspire the people around you. Whether you’re a veteran CEO or just have a few years of professional experience, here are five leadership tips that you can start using today at work regardless of your current role or title. Consider these your secret weapons – use them well and they will allow you to get more of your goals accomplished and create a working environment that your whole team can enjoy.
How to be a leader at work
You may think of the “leaders” in your organization as the ones at the top of the org chart, but true leadership isn’t dependent on a title or a reporting structure. It’s in how you treat and inspire the people around you.
Whether you’re a veteran CEO or just have a few years of professional experience, here are five leadership tips that you can start using today at work regardless of your current role or title. Consider these your secret weapons – use them well and they will allow you to get more of your goals accomplished and create a working environment that your whole team can enjoy.
Get to know your coworkers.
Research has shown that top performing teams have one thing in common – psychological safety. And to achieve that, you need vulnerability.
There are few things more vulnerable at work than sharing personal stories with the people you work with. Just get to know them, and give them a chance to know you! When your co-workers stop seeing each other as mere colleagues, and as complex human beings instead, it works wonders to bring a team together. People take more risks, help each other, and are more likely to view your ideas and motives in a positive light.
Hand out win-wins.
Every single person you work with has goals to meet. And, because there are a finite number of resources in any organization, compromise becomes inevitable if you’re going to get anything done! Anytime you can find a way to help someone towards their goal, even if it means giving a little bit on your own, that’s a win-win.
Win-wins are the social currency of any organization. That means the more you can hand out, the better! Think of the alternative – you either give people a win or you give them a loss. If your co-workers know you’re someone that hands out wins, they’ll be much more likely to work with you than if you’re known for handing out losses.
Be bold and inspirational.
When asked if their organization values boldness, only 13% of respondents say it does not. So what holds people back? The answer is easy: Fear! Fear that people “don’t like change” and fear that being bold makes people uncomfortable.
Think about that for a moment. It’s not for a lack of ideas. It’s not for a lack of resources. And it’s not because boldness won’t lead to achieving a desired end result. People hold back because they are afraid of the reactions of others. However, those are things that can be managed.
Don’t be afraid to articulate a bold vision and go for it. Yes, you may get some resistance as first, but if you manage through it, you’ll come out well ahead on the other side.
Give people a common goal.
You know what types of teams don’t have as many interpersonal challenges? Ones that literally work in life and death scenarios, like the military or doctors and nurses working in an emergency room. They have an overt common goal, they have urgency surrounding it, and none of the personal nonsense gets in the way of doing what they can to achieve.
When you’re leading a cross-functional team – one made up of folks who may or may not report to you – you obviously can’t manufacture life and death scenarios. However, you can create urgency around a common purpose, empower the members of your team to do what they can to achieve it, and build in mechanisms that show them their progress. The more progress they see, the more inspired they’ll be to keep going.
Be of service, always.
One of my favorite quotes is “If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you.”
Great leaders don’t expect others to be of service to them. They look for ways to be of service to others. That means they lift them up and help them achieve their goals. They don’t bark orders – they bring the team together and make everyone feel like a trusted and valued member. They go out of their way to take care of the people around them. No matter their rank, they humble themselves to the greater good.
When you do those things, it will always come back to you in spades.
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Note: I originally wrote this article in June 2014 when I was the Leadership Content Director for a consulting firm in higher education. However, the principles discussed are broadly applicable. Enjoy!
What started as an initiative to restructure, gain efficiencies, reduce administrative bloat, and make some necessary budget cuts at the University of Saskatchewan led to the resignation of the provost and the firing of the president.
A Little Background
It all started in January 2013, when the university president initiated TransformUS, a strategic effort to prioritize both academic and administrative programs to cut about $44 million from the budget. If you’re interested in the full timeline, head over to the University of Saskatchewan website »
In mid-May 2014, things got interesting:
- One of the recommendations for implementation involved moving the School of Public Health under the College of Medicine. The Executive Director of the School of Public Heath, Robert Buckingham, had previously voiced concerns that this move may impact their accreditation.
- May 13: Robert Buckingham published an open letter documenting what he dubbed the “Silence of the Deans”. It included a recounting of a meeting in December 2013 with the senior leadership of the university in which the president said that if anyone disagreed publicly with the findings of TransformUS their “tenure would be short.”
- May 14: Robert Buckingham was fired as the head of the School of Public Health, stripped of tenure and barred from campus.
- May 15: The university admitted it “blundered” and re-instated Professor Buckingham’s tenure.
- May 19: The university’s board held an emergency meeting. At that time, the Provost submitted his resignation.
- May 21: The board announces they have fired the president.
The StarPhoenix offers a detailed timeline of the events »
Fundamentally, the fiasco at the University of Saskatchewan was a failure of change management on the part of its now former president. Prioritizing programs and cutting budgets is not an inherently bad thing. The initiative itself was not the problem. The execution was the problem.
Change Management 101
Change management is a nice buzzword, but let’s step back and think about what we mean by it – the process by which you execute large-scale change and guide your staff through a period of transition to achieve a desired vision. There are four distinct phases:
- Visioning: This is, by far, the most important part of the process and the stage in which you set yourself up for success or failure. In this step, you develop a clear vision, assess the context you’re working within, communicate it broadly, and generate buy-in from your community.
- Execution: When the switch is flipped, and the proposed change begins to become a reality.
- The Transition Trench: When they say that it’ll get harder before it gets better, this stage is exactly what they’re referring to. It immediately follows the execution of the plan, and involves a period in which staff morale and productivity dips below what it was prior to the change. The goal of change management is to work through this process as efficiently as possible, to reduce the depth and duration of the transition.
- Sustained Progress: If you manage the transition trench well, you’ll graduate into a period where you realize the benefits of the change that was implemented.
What Went Wrong
So, what happened? We’re lucky – the University of Saskatchewan has very detailed documentation on their website, including videos of each of the town halls and over a year of blog posts complete with comments from the community. This gives us an inside look at what information was available, and the community reaction to it. Based on that information, here are a few thoughts:
Numbers are Not a Rallying Cry
Big change requires bringing the community together to push through to a common vision. On this point, the University of Saskatchewan missed the mark, but did so in a way that is fairly common in higher education. This was an opportunity to create a rallying cry to unite the campus, break down silos, operate more efficiently, and better serve the community. A rallying cry can be many things…but what it shouldn’t be is a number. It’s hard to get people excited about the idea of meeting a budget number, which is exactly where the former president focused. At the January 9, 2014 town hall, she went as far as to comment that this was purely a financial exercise and the only goal was to reduce the budget.
The question here is not whether or not a budget reduction was necessary – it was. The question is with regards to how you frame the message to get the community (faculty, staff, students, alums, etc.) to support the process. Reducing administrative layers and bloat…great! Creating a better student experience by making the academic experience more integrated…great! These are ideas that people can get behind that align with their core values. And guess what – you’ll also probably end up reducing the budget in the course of meeting either of these goals.
Higher education, particularly at large research institutions, is the land of peer review and faculty governance. This context needs to be considered as a part of that visioning stage.
In undertaking any change effort that impacts faculty and academics at this type of institution, how your faculty perceives the process is critical to gaining support. In other words, if your faculty doesn’t perceive something to be “fair”, based on the qualities they value – like academic rigor and peer review – then you are going to have a problem. Attempting to weather the storm is certainly an option, but it’s a lot easier to head it off at the very beginning of the process.
An item of particular concern in this case was the template that was utilized to make determinations about how to prioritize programs and assess their value to the institution. The full template is available as a part of the academic programs report.
In the town halls, this issue came up over and over again. With faculty voicing their perception that the template did not collect the right data to be useful, was not as thorough as it needed to be, and was not peer reviewed and therefore suspect. One glance at the template makes it easy to understand why. For example, the assessment of external demand for the program limited the response to a 100-word maximum, less than the size of this paragraph. As a point of comparison, when Eduventures delivers an academic program feasibility study to one of our clients, it can be several dozen pages in length! Put yourselves in the shoes of a faculty member who has never written a single paragraph of less than 100 words in their entire academic career, and ask them to summarize the value of their program (essentially, to fight for their job) in that limited space. It starts the entire process off on the wrong foot.
Transparency Does Not Equal Buy-In
Transparency in a situation like this is critical to success. Without it, you create your own rumor mill, which only undermines the process. On the surface, the University of Saskatchewan attempted to establish a very transparent process, complete with a website with regular blog posts from TransformUS leaders discussing the various components of the plan and allowing the community to give ongoing feedback in the form of comments. This is something the university did very well.
However, putting out a significant amount of information on a website IS NOT the same thing as generating buy-in from your community of stakeholders. Asking for feedback should not be confused with a genuine exercise that utilizes the talents of the community to develop an execution-focused plan. In fact, when the full timeline of events is considered, they illustrate a shocking lack of interest in accepting and considering feedback from the community. Consider the following:
- The full reports on prioritization were delivered to the community in December 2013.
- Town halls for community response – in which the president emphasized that these reports were “recommendations, not decisions” were held in January 2014.
- However, according to the Silence of the Deans open letter, in December 2013 – one month before the open town halls when, allegedly, no decisions had been made – the president held her meeting of the senior leadership when she emphasized that senior leaders should not publicly disagree with the process or findings of the TransformUS reports. The letter noted that “although the initial publicly released TransformUS documents were vague, behind closed doors the president and provost planned major changes.”
We can’t know what happened behind closed doors, but this timeline certainly begs the following question: If the university’s senior leaders are not permitted to give feedback and engage in the process, then how could their teams be expected to do so? They had no one’s behavior to model. Watch the town hall meeting of January 8, 2014, and you’ll see leadership struggling to find individuals who were willing to get up and ask a question or offer an observation.
The reality with buy-in is that generating it is the ability to transcend a lack of consensus. And that has everything to do with leadership. Most people are surprisingly reasonable. They don’t need to have their own ideas implemented to buy into a decision. What they do need is to have their ideas heard, understood, considered and explained within the context of that decision.
More Than a Buzzword
Taking the human element of change management into consideration isn’t just a warm fuzzy thing to do – it will guide your organization through a period of transition more effectively. Assessing your context during the visioning stage, and generating buy-in from your stakeholders, are steps that you should skip over at your own peril…a lesson the (now former) leadership at the University of Saskatchewan learned the hard way.
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When someone does something to irk us at work, it can be very easy to assume it was the result of negative intent. In this podcast, I’ll explain why, and explore a more productive route.
Assume positive intent at work
I want to start this article by asking you to consider a question: How often do you go into work and think “I’m going to throw my coworker under the bus today!”
If you’re like most people, then your answer is probably “never!” Let’s be honest, we’ve all had those coworkers that you’d like to see crash and burn every now and again, but rarely do we go in with the intent of causing it through direct sabotage.
And yet, if our coworkers do something that negatively impacts us, our first assumption is that they did it with negative intent. This is the fundamental attribution error in action – a fancy psychological term that essentially says that when something goes wrong, we have a tendency to assume it was the result of someone’s disposition or personality, and underestimate the situational context that the behavior took place it.
Say someone cuts you off in traffic. Your instant reaction is “what a jerk!” But what if you knew that person was rushing to the hospital because they just got a call that their loved one had been in a car accident? The situational context changes everything – you can now see clearly that they’re not trying to be a jerk. They have no intent towards you whatsoever. They’re just doing the best they can.
Let’s apply this to the workplace. Maybe your coworker promised to get you an important document by the end of the day…but the next morning rolls around and it still hasn’t arrived yet. You’re on a tight deadline and you need it (literally!) yesterday.
You’ve got two basic options: You can assume negative intent, or you can assume positive intent.
- If you assume negative intent, it might look something like this: “Carl obviously doesn’t think my work is very important. Why else would he blow my needs off?! I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!”
- If you assume positive intent, it might look like this: “I wonder what happened with that document Carl said he would have to me yesterday? Maybe something else came up. I should check in and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
You have full control over the choice you make regarding the path you’ll go down, and the path you choose is going to dictate your behavior towards your coworker in that situation. If you start by assuming negative intent, then you’ve effectively shut yourself off to other scenarios that don’t support your story and are more likely to have an angry, unproductive interaction. On the other hand, if you start with positive intent, you’re much more open to having a positive interaction and resolution the situation. Sure, it would have been great if you’d had that document yesterday, but you can’t go back and change the past. All you can do is more forward.
You will legitimately come across some situations at work where you coworkers really do have negative intent. It does happen! But it is the exception rather than the rule. So give your coworkers a break, and start by assuming their positive intent. If something goes wrong, don’t assume they’re out to do you in. Maybe their boss came down on them about something. Maybe they’re having a tough time at home. Maybe they just got a huge project dropped in their lap. Maybe they just haven’t had their coffee yet. Whatever the scenario, you set yourself up for greater success when you start by assuming that your coworkers are doing the best they can giving the context of the situation they are in.
Remember, staying positive in your perspective is not about letting your coworkers off easy – it’s about you being as productive and successful as you can be. Your assumptions about the situation dictate your behaviors. Positive intent leads to more positive behaviors. Negative intent leads to more negative behaviors. It’s pretty clear which is the most productive use of your energy.
Let me help you change your perspective and assume positive intent
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I hear some version of the “I HATE my coworker” problem every week. In this podcast, I tackle it head on and give you some ideas about how to proactively approach the situation and create a more positive environment for all involved.
I hate my coworkers
I hear it all the time. You can’t stand your coworker. He or she has stabbed you in the back. They’ve thrown you under the bus. They’re passive aggressive. They’re mean. They just don’t “get it.” They always get in the way.
Hanging onto those feelings towards the people that you have to be around for eight hours a day, five days a week, does you absolutely no good. Here are some steps to begin resolving the situation.
What makes you think I hate my coworkers?
Let’s go back to the beginning. What happened? I’m sure you didn’t walk in on day one, just hate the look of the person, and it was all downhill from there. Really work to get some clarity on why there’s not a better working relationship between the two of you. What did they say to you? What did they do? When was it? What context was it in? There’s a huge difference between someone that just rubs you the wrong way and someone that verbally assaults you at a staff meeting.
Your goal is not to perpetuate the situation. Your goal is to fix it. Sit down and actually make a list of what’s gone wrong so that you can be more objective about it. When we have negative emotions about someone, sometimes that means that we take incidents that are isolated events that, frankly, weren’t that big of a deal and blow them up in our heads over time. Your list is not for you to share with others, or to turn into HR or anything like that – anytime you go to HR to try to solve issues like this, it will probably be woefully unsuccessful. This is simply an exercise to help you get internal clarity.
Try giving them the benefit of the doubt.
You are always in control of the perspective you bring to any situation – you are making the choice to think I hate my coworkers. Now that you have your list and you know what you think is driving the wedge between the two of you, try considering other perspectives. They’ve done something (or perhaps many things) that you don’t like. I want you to ask yourself what other explanations there could be for their behavior.
- Could they be under pressure that you don’t know about from their boss?
- Could they be sick or depressed or have something physically wrong with them that you can’t see?
- Could they be having trouble at home? Is there something going on with their family?
- Could they have just been yelled at by a co-worker in a meeting that you weren’t in?
- Could they just not realize how their behavior is coming across?
The list could go on and on. The point of the exercise is to consider other potential causes of their behavior towards you that have nothing to do with you. Because most of the time it probably has nothing to do with you! The point is that when we behave badly towards other people, it very rarely has to do with a negative intention towards that person – it has to do with ourselves. You don’t need to know exactly what happened. You just need to open the door to consider that there was no negative intention.
We are all victims of victims. That means that the way we perceive ourselves, and the way we interact with others is largely based on what has happened to us in the past, as far back as childhood. People are fundamentally imperfect, and they can very easily pass on those imperfections in the way of their behavior towards others without realizing the damage they are doing. Effectively they are repeating what has been done to them.
So give people a break. Even if they did exactly what you think they did, they are probably not doing it out of malice towards you. There is always a chance that they are, but most of the time, people behave badly towards others for reasons that have to do with their own stress, anxiety, and fear. This is a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s them.”
This is not to excuse their behavior – it’s to put it in it’s proper context.
Here’s the hard part: Let the past go.
We live in the present and we can’t go back and change the past. The only thing we can do is move forward to a better tomorrow. For that reason, I want you to try to let what’s happened in the past go. You are not hurting your coworker by hanging onto it. You’re just hurting yourself, and preventing yourself from being as effective and happy as you could be at work.
This is one of the hardest things to do in the world…but in some ways, it’s also the easiest. Just let it go. Move on. If neither you or your co-worker has any intention of quitting your jobs, then something has got to give to turn the situation around and make it better for all involved. Someone has to take the first step. You don’t lose anything by being the person to do it.
Here’s your homework.
The next time you go into work, you should invite the person you can’t stand out to lunch. Get outside of the office in neutral territory, preferably a more laid back environment where you can both be comfortable.
If they accept your invitation, I don’t want you to use it as an opportunity to launch into everything that you think is wrong with them, or take them to ask on all the items on your list. In fact, I don’t want you to talk much at all. Instead, ask them lots of questions. How are they doing? What are they working on? How do they feel about it? How can you help them? Your best case scenario is that you come out of that lunch giving them a win on something they care about. That’s how great working relationships are built. You could even get to know them on a more personal level if they’re open to it – the more vulnerable you both can be with each other, the more psychological safety you’ll create. That’s a good thing – psychological safety is critical to effective teamwork.
What if it doesn’t work? Well, it won’t always! But at least you’ve taken the first step and opened the door. Maybe they say “no” the first time you ask them to lunch. Well, wait a few weeks and try again! Or maybe the lunch doesn’t go so well and they answer all of your questions with a one-word answer. Look, they’re probably going to be suspicious of this! Think about how you would feel if someone that you couldn’t stand invited you out for lunch. It’s going to throw you off balance! They’re probably feeling the same thing. This is not the end of the conversation – it’s just the beginning. This is the type of thing that may not work the first time you try it. But don’t give up – keep trying and giving them opportunities to break down whatever wall has gone up. Be the bigger person, and maintain your perspective as long as they are not doing anything to actively hurt you at work.
Remember, it’s all about relationships.
You’re not going to be best friends with everyone you work with, and that’s OK. But your experience at work is going to be so much better if you have a functional relationship with the people that you interact with on a regular basis. My number one principle of office politics is that people do not behave logically and rationally – they make decisions emotionally, and then they justify them rationally. That means how someone feels about you has a dramatic impact on the way they perceive your work. If they like you, they are going to perceive everything you do in a better light. If they don’t like you, then they will perceive things more negatively than they really should. It’s in your best interest to have your relationships put together, and will only mean good things for you.
There’s no need to think I hate my coworkers every day
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