In change leadership, followers must be sold

You’re a leader with a big initiative. You need to implement significant change in your team, department or organization. You believe the change will be good for the company and for the individual team players affected.  It appears to be a win/win situation. You roll out your initiative and, initially at least, it’s met with great response.

A quarter passes and followers claim to be excited, but milestones are missed. The team seems to be giving lip service and telling you what they think you want to hear. The problem could be a number of things. It could be that they don’t believe the change will be good, but they don’t trust that their input will be met favorably. In many cases, it’s fear.

A basic principle of psychology is that people are hedonistic. They move toward pleasure and away from pain. They tend to stay where they experience the greater amount of pleasure, in their comfort zone.  Any new direction or change often is met with anxiety and fear of the unknown or fear of possible failure and embarrassment. Psychologists and experts refer to the act of keeping things the same as “homeostasis.” People work toward keeping things the same because it’s more comfortable.

Any change initiative should be handled like a classic sales situation and presented with assurances of what’s in it for the followers. Keep communication open and allot time for followers to present their concerns. Just as in other sales situations, handle objections by overcoming myths and minimizing or putting real and valid concerns into perspective.

Some leaders don’t want open discussion regarding change because they fear the situation will get out of hand or that it will embolden followers against the change initiative. In reality, followers will talk anyway, and some will use the grapevine to push their anti-change initiatives. Getting everything on the table gives a leader more control and an opportunity to separate myth from reality and sell the vision, outcome or initiative. When people have real concerns that aren’t addressed, they will back away from the initiative, slow down or drag their feet.

You can’t change people’s minds for them; we can only change our own minds. As a leader, however, you can create the environment for others to change their minds.

I have taught sales people and leaders how to create that environment. The way to do that is to get people talking and keep them talking. As they speak, they will think and talk the situation through. They will tell you what they are thinking relative to the change initiative.

To move individuals to change their minds, ask open-ended questions to get them to think about what they just said. When they respond, ask another open-ended question. Keep going until you move them in the direction you need them to go. Just telling people what they should be thinking causes defense mechanisms to pop up and further entrenches them. 

This process works very well with individuals and groups. Even though you may be speaking to one individual within a group, others in the group will be listening and thinking things through for themselves. Because they don’t have as much emotion invested as the initial holdout, they often come around first and then join in to help sell the others.  

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The often-overlooked imperative to change leadership

Think about how some change initiatives are rolled out.

Some leaders responsible for change enlist a variety of functions at the corporate level to communicate and support change efforts. Marketing comes to the table with a great marketing campaign, complete with glossy material and fantastic visuals, because that’s what they do best.

In some cases, compensation personnel put together what they perceive to be a great incentive plan to elicit the appropriate behavior for change because that’s their forte.

People at high levels determine bench marks to measure success.
People at high levels across departments congratulate themselves and rightly so. They built a phenomenal ark to carry followers to the change needed. They delight at the thought of how surprised, inspired and appreciated their change campaign will make team players when they roll it out. Privately, they get excited as they muse at how impressed team players will be with them when this masterpiece is presented.

In some cases, top level leaders agree that an initiative this awesome deserves to be unveiled with fanfare and enthusiasm. Sometimes they keep things under wraps and use the element of surprise to generate excitement. They pick the perfect date to lift the veil and share the initiative with the company.

When leaders finally roll it out, they don’t get the response they expected. Followers are confused and leaders are upset. Why?

Top-level leaders have input buy-in and as a result have developed an emotional attachment to the change initiative program.

Leaders are upset because, in many cases, they have put in months of preparation, time and budget pulling all of this together. In their minds, they’ve done all this for what now appear to be ungrateful followers. They consult with peers who helped develop the program and all agree it would motivate them! The feeling among this group is that they put so much into this program it should sell itself!

Too often, the lower-level leaders responsible for implementing change are hearing about it at the same time or just before their direct reports. They don’t understand and don’t fully buy in. When they’re not sold, it’s hard for them to sell followers.

Followers on all levels often are confused because they don’t have any emotional involvement. They can’t relate to the program. They didn’t have input. They are just hearing about it for the first time. Yes, it’s a whiz-bang program, but it looks complicated. They aren’t certain it will work the way it’s presented. They haven’t had months to absorb it.

While this may seem like an exaggeration, I have worked with companies to clean up after some or all of this approach. While we all like to say we know better, that we understand the imperative of participation and buy-in, all too often powerful leaders will impose this kind of implementation. They key on how powerful the element of surprise may be in creating enthusiasm when the real focus should be on effective change over the course of the initiative. In many cases, they sacrifice both.

Leadership is sales. Excitement should be developed initially in the way the change initiative is rolled out and sold, not told, to followers. Glossy material won’t sell the program as well as direct conversation. No amount of incentive will suffice when people don’t believe in the change. Excitement should be enhanced in the way the program is sold to followers every day.

Leaders on all levels should be involved in designing the change initiative. It’s not realistic to have everyone involved but a representative group of multi-level leaders and followers should be involved. Those responsible for implementing the change day in and day out should have time to absorb the initiative and should be sold themselves before being expected to sell to their followers.

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