The Heckler: What You Can Learn from Your Critics

Posted in Leadership by AST on Monday, June 15th, 2009

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The Heckler: 'Boo! That's a terrible idea!'On Thursday, I attended my first Dublin Chamber of Commerce networking event. After the hour-and-a-half of 5 min “speed networking” sessions and selected 60 second pitches, I was trying to decide whether to leave when I overheard an interesting discussion on organizational change between Lorcán Ó hUallacháin (@onlybrilliant) and Irial O’Farrell (Evolution Consulting).

After joining the conversation, we eventually ended up talking about obstacles to sucessfull organizational change and what you do about them. We were all agreed that a successful change program might require leaders to make some tough staffing choices to cull sources of negative energy, but they were a bit surprised when I suggested that it might be just as necessary to learn from those sources of negativity as it might be to remove their influence.

Asking “Why?”

“Why?” is a pretty powerful question in general, but the answers it might provide in this case may very well mean the difference between success and failure of your organizational change initiative. If you’re skeptical about this, consider the following:

  • “99% of the time when people say ‘I don’t care’, it means ‘I’m hurting inside’” (thanks to @wilshipley)
  • Sometimes your harshest critics now were formerly your most ardent supporters
  • Remember ‘organizational change’ is actually a misnomer; what we’re really talking about is ‘people change’ within an organization

With this in mind, it would be short-sighted to not examine these pockets of negativity more closely to identify deep-seated organizational culture and behavioral issues that might be likely to surface and scuttle your carefully planned change program. This isn’t to say that there won’t be that 1% of people who are just not a good fit for the team anyway. However, you are actually likely to have a number of people with excellent skills who aren’t just being obnoxious, who are, in fact, “grown ups” and who have first-hand experience with some of the secondary systems at work within your organization that will attempt to offset what you’re trying to accomplish.

What to Learn

You need to arrange to have a 1:1 conversations with these individuals as early as possible when planning your program. If you’re an outside consultant, you’ll likely have an easier time getting to some of these answers because people are more inclined to vent to people they don’t know. If you’re “on the inside”, or even if you’re external but are perceived to be “working with them“, it may be harder to get past the natural anxiety and defense mechanisms of people afraid for their jobs. You can still get the information you need, but you just need to have a good awareness of how people perceive the program, how they perceive you and how threatened they are likely to be. Remember: it’s about the people.

In some ways, it is fair to approach these conversations in a similar manner to a standard exit interview. One difference here is that doesn’t imply the person is leaving (although that might be your ultimate reccommendation). Another difference is that you’re actually going to immediately use the information and feedback you get during the session rather than filing it “for future use” or, even worse, not recording it at all. The rationale here is why wait until it’s too late to salvage a good employee?

Here are some of the things you should be hoping to discover:

  • What is the real source of the person’s negativity? Is it because they were too attached to a pet project that was canceled? Have they repeatedly tried to “make things better” within the team/department/organization and only seen these efforts fail?
  • How have “change programs” been realized in the past? Have a number of these been attempted and failed previously? Are there any patterns to learn from for this attempt?
  • When was the last time the person was excited and motivated about what they or the team was doing? Why has that changed? What picture of the organization does what they say paint?
  • Is there anything new that you can discover about the organization that will help you implement your change program?
  • Is this person someone who you feel can once again make positive contributions to the team and is worth bringing with you through the change?

Not for Everyone

Please note that I’m not suggesting you should do this detailed an exercise with each and every heckler you discover in an organization. If you’re a leader or a consultant, you (and the vibes you get from the rest of the team) should be reasonably good at filtering out the ones not worth the time. However, if you encounter an overwhelming amount of cynicism and negativity in an organization, you need to carefully evaluate the real chances of success for your change program. In this case, there’s likely much more subtle and involved changes that need to take place besides your original program.

If there’s only a few, then I recommend that you actually talk to all of them so that you have a larger sample space and hopefully can better identify real trends vs. outlying strong opinions or personal grudges. The most fatal thing you can ever do is underestimate the power of the existing organizational culture.

Neither leadership nor organizational change is a hard science. You can employ proven systems, frameworks and formal methods to accomplish your objectives, but a good part of your success comes from your “bedside manner” and how well you can relate, connect and empathize with the people involved–even your harshest critics. What can you learn from them?

1 Comment »

  1. Richard Veryard said,

    June 15, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I agree totally. I have long argued that resistance isn’t something to be “overcome” but something to be understood and accommodated.

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