How Unlearning Gets Change Stuck

Unlearning is a specific process with stages and obstacles between stages. Knowing how to guide people to overcome these obstacles and completing the process leads to lasting change acquisition….This is important because if the people we train and support do not know how to go through the Unlearning process themselves, they will need support if they are to acquire new needed skills.

To intuitively understand Unlearning, we should start with what Unlearning is not. Try to think of a time you learned a brand new skill. It can be anything from learning how to swim to learning how to respond to conflict. Which steps did you take in order to learn something brand new? For deliberately acquired skills like swimming, most people say they learn by observing, collecting information, and through trial and error. For skills we acquire less deliberately like how we respond to conflict, most people say they learn from observing others around them and from the meaning they assigned to specific experiences in the past.

In this way, when we learn, we adopt and reinforce a new skill, response, or way of doing things. Now try to imagine a skill or response you’ve been reinforcing for a long time. If at some point, you decide to significantly change the way you apply a skill or respond, how do you think the Unlearning involved will be different from learning?

In what way will learning to change the way you swim (after swimming the previous way for a long time) different than learning it for the first time? How is unlearning to respond to conflict like you’ve responded to conflict in the past and adopting new responses to conflict situations different from learning how to respond to conflict for the first time? The key difference is that with unlearning you must work towards achieving something new against pre-existing patterns which, unless managed correctly, will interfere with the acquisition of the new. Most people recognize Unlearning is more difficult than learning and that because of preexisting patterns, it requires much greater awareness and attention. But to most, unlearning seems like a vague process.

A good dose of motivation does not hurt when it comes to change acquisition, but for Unlearning, motivation is far from enough. For most, when using motivation to try to Unlearn a previous response and re-learn a new one, people often feel the strong “forces” making the acquisition of the new hard. This is important because if the people we train and support do not know how to go through the Unlearning process themselves, they will need support if they are to acquire new needed skills.

Until recently, the challenges of Unlearning were invisible to us so we had very little choice but to depend on motivation alone. Now, thanks to developments in neuroscience, we have access to identifying other critical obstacles in the Unlearning-relearning process. Knowing what those obstacles are, allows us to guide people through the acquisition of new skills much more effectively, quickly, and consistently.

When people need to acquire new behaviors and skills they often simultaneously need to unlearn previously “reinforced” behaviors, responses, and skills to “make room” for new ones. Traditionally, we used to only focus on training people to use new skills and behaviors without managing the process of letting go of preexisting ones. For example, we may provide leadership development programs that focus on what ideal leadership practices should be acquired, without managing the letting go of previous leadership practices which were in practice to that point. We may try to facilitate a culture change and train people to adopt new values, skills, and behaviors without managing the letting go of previous values, skills, and behaviors.

Unlearning is not a random process. It has stages and there are obstacles between stages blocking us from completing it. Unless the unlearning of certain previous behaviors, thinking habits, and responses is managed correctly, resistance and other obstacles will prevent the new learning from being adopted in a lasting way.

Consider discussing or exploring the following:

  • What are individuals and teams you are working with trying to achieve?
  • Will they need to unlearn anything (are there previous ways of responding, behaving, thinking, or otherwise doing things that will need to change)?
  • Make a list of the aspects that will require your Unlearning management attention.

The KCI Change Acquisition Method is a step-by-step process to manage the acquisition of the new by simultaneously managing the Unlearning, the letting go of previous ways of doing things. If that’s relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out KCI services, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,



How to Identify Difficult Change?

Change efforts sometimes run into complicated obstacles. Correctly identifying a change effort as difficult or non-difficult allows you to select the right model. This way, when you step into difficult change you are taking the right steps from the start.

We shouldn’t underestimate how valuable mastery of change facilitation know-how is to the success of difficult change efforts and we need to recognize that “change” isn’t one thing. A change from an archaic system that glitched all the time and significantly limited the team to a new, user-friendly, intuitive system that provides answers to the team’s past concerns will require adjustment. But the change will be very different than trying to shift from that same archaic system to a new, complicated system that does not solve the team’s past concerns. Trying to get a caring, introspective, service oriented team to adopt a Servant Leadership culture will require new focus. But it will be nothing like trying to adopt that same culture if the team is coping with low trust, people are argumentative, and each team member is primarily focused on what any change will add to their workload.

There’s a saying: ”If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If your change education was anything like mine, you didn’t get access to difficult change models. Stepping into difficult change armed with the right models means you are ready to successfully guide people through difficult change because you see the steps clearly yourself. Unfortunately, change models that are not specifically designed to overcome the unique obstacles of difficult change often can’t stretch to provide sufficient guidance and support. So the first thing we need to talk about is: How can we identify difficult change?

The top 3 factors that can be used to identify difficult change are a big shift, big gap, and long duration. To get an intuitive sense of how these apply to difficult change, think of an individual, team, or organization you know that can benefit from improving. Define to yourself what the current state is (what needs to change?) and what the desired outcome is, then consider assessing if this is more likely non-difficult or difficult change:

  • Will it Require a Big Shift: from a previous way of doing things to a new way of doing things. If, for example, an open, receptive individual needs to adopt greater mastery of effective listening skills this will probably be less of a shift than if a defensive individual needed to acquire those same skills. If a team or organization that is learning-oriented, feedback-seeking, and frequently questioning assumptions needs to adopt greater mastery of skills around diversity and inclusion it will probably be less of a shift than if a team that generalizes truths, sees things in black and white (us vs. them etc.) and believes that ”our way is the right way” had to acquire the same skills. Will a big shift be required to achieve the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?
  • Is there a Big Gap: different groups of people seeing things very differently. For example, when an individual who needs to change recognizes and accepts the feedback he is given from other people’s perspectives it will probably be less of a gap than when an individual is given feedback from other people’s perspectives but sees things very differently himself. When a team all agree about the issues they need to resolve it will probably be less of a gap than when there are sub groups in the team, each with their own different beliefs about what the issues are and how they need to be resolved. If different levels in the organizational structure are aligned in terms of needs, it will probably be less of a gap than if higher levels of management and “end-employees” only see needs from their perspective. Is there a big gap in how different people see things in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?
  • Duration of Previous Way of Doing Things: Long duration of practicing previous responses, behaviors, thinking patterns, actions, systems etc. prior to introducing the need for change. If, for example an individual is experiencing friction with a manager for two months and responding to the manager in a less than ideal way during this time, changing this dynamic and response pattern will probably be less difficult than if the same dynamic has been in place for ten years. If a team or organization is trying to deliberately adopt new values or a new culture, this will probably be easier a few months after the team or organization formed than after the organization has been practicing another way of doing things for twenty years or more. Have responses, behaviors, or thinking habits been reinforced for long duration of time in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?

Add to these top three factors like emotional investment, fake buy-in, lack of trust, and dysfunctional politics. Any one of these factors can make change difficult but it is not at all uncommon to find them together. The good news is that there is a common cause at the heart of why these factors make change more difficult. These are all more difficult because they each increase the need for Unlearning. The more change requires Unlearning, the more it “activates” conscious (visible, external) and subconscious (invisible, internal) resistance responses. The more these factors are present, the more you’ll hear responses like ”this is how we’ve always done it…”, the more meetings with discussions about change will lead to draining implementation progress, and the more you’ll have to deal with frustration, argumentativeness, and other fear-driven, change-blocking responses.

There is a way to go about it that is designed specifically to overcome these obstacles to change. If that’s relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out KCI services, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,



Do We Need a New Definition for Resistance?

I have been struggling with defining what resistance is lately, and I agree we need new terms for the resistance itself and for the response people have to their own resistance.

The easiest way for me to think of resistance is in terms of physics, to think of friction. Resistance, especially when it comes to change, does make us less efficient for a while, but it also makes it possible for cars to move forward. Resistance lights up a light bulb. In general resistance has an important role in making things work, change, and gain energy.

Resistance itself (in my understanding of the word as used in physics) is a force that works against another force. If we are used to doing something a certain way, or if we are deep in thought, investing our energy in one vector, and then that effort is interrupted, we resist. I have not yet found what, in terms brain systems or brain activity, happens to generate this response, but in physics it is quite simple: any movement in one direction, when introduced to a new vector of direction, will generate some resistance.

And then there is a line of behaviors we call resistance that is really a response to that initial trigger. How we resist will depend on the synaptic pathways (representing reinforced response patterns) that make us who we are. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call these “resistance responses.”

While resistance itself is a critical part of unlearning and relearning (not every change requires resistance!) resistance responses can block change. Creating a new habit that has an unlearning component requires overcoming resistance in practice. By that I mean contentiously making a choice to “compete” with old ways of doing things. But if your response patterns to resistance are, for example, ones of avoidance, manipulation, or not really hearing and seeing reality, you may not be able to overcome that resistance trigger effectively and may be stuck unable to change.

Would love to learn what others think about this distinction and which terms you use to describe it…

Can You Outsource IT Change Management?

It is imperative to have IT change done by people in the organization.

In IT in particular (we find it to be one of the trickiest most illusive change implementation challenges)  the answers for successfully implementing change are surprising.

Here are some myths I find you don’t need to worry about:
1. You don’t need the initial support of senior leadership to successfully lead change management.
2. You don’t need senior leadership to emphasize the importance of using the new technology.
3. Usually you are already doing a fantastic job designing the system – the reason people are not adopting it isn’t because they really need you to make the million changes they are telling you they need after the fact.

The question can be generalized, but I’m going to keep using IT as an example although similar points can be made for other implementation efforts (M&As, cultural change etc.).

Let’s say that you developed an IT solution for a company that would be worth a lot more to them if everyone in the organization actually implemented it, but people are not using the system. This is a tough challenge, but in my experience one that, with the right approach, can be done with great success rates.

What has worked for us:
1. Gain access to smaller units instead of trying to influence everyone in the organization at once. Implement the IT system at any level, that will lead to noticeable results.
2. For #1 to be of value, you need the results of your initial showcase effort to be: a) tied to an organizational goal (like saving money/time/confusion etc., which I’m sure a new IT system does);  b) show that as a result of using the system, the goals are met to some initial degree.
3. You need people to use the IT system (this part often requires outsourcing).

If we looked at M&As, cultural integration, implementation of Six Sigma processes – the same general principles apply.

I was talking to a CEO in the manufacturing industry yesterday and he was jokingly suggesting that it would be really awesome if they would review change experts the same way they review cameras and new digital products. You know, where a third party objective user records a review of what it was like to use it? That would be nice!

Why Do We Accept the Idea That You Can't Change People Who Don't Want to Change?

We are never going to always be able to change people who don’t want to change. Thankfully, or hopefully, in a business environment, people will always have the choice not to cooperate. We morally oppose the idea of changing people who don’t want to change. But there are many situations in which doing our damnedest to change people who don’t want to change is the right thing to do.

One great example is IT implementation. Good IT systems take a lot of effort, time and money to develop, and yet most are very difficult to implement. Not so much because there is anything wrong with the system. More often it is because people resist in many visible and invisible ways making a shift from using old systems to using new ones.

I attended a meeting recently that brought together representatives of a few IT development companies and representatives of First Response units. IT representatives tried to learn more about the needs of the different First Response units, and truth be told, they had gone a long way to make the devices for dispatch teams extremely easy to operate. The representatives of the First Response units – doctors, fire fighters etc. – were explaining their challenge: nurses and fire fighters are used to using different systems every day and are blocked from using the new systems when they run into it for the first time in an emergency. As the only change expert in the room, I had to ask: “Since it is virtually impossible  to make sure that the systems used in the ‘office’ are the same as the ones used in the field, and since the devices are already pretty simple, wouldn’t it make sense to give people the abilities that will get them to be flexible enough to use both?”

Do you believe it would hurt  the amazing people of First Response teams if  we got them to be more flexible (even if initially they don’t want to be – and I assure you, in working with them, some of them don’t)? How about getting people who work for a job less emergency-oriented or health-related? Assuming it’s a good system, is it not okay to expect that people start using the new IT system the company invested in?

So why do we accept the idea that you can’t change people who don’t want to change?

Other than the belief that we are crossing an ethical line, which I believe we are not, two reasons come to mind:

1. Because without the right tools it cannot be done, we assume it cannot be done: this reminded me of cancer treatments. There was a time when most cancer patients died, if not from the cancer, from radiation and if not from radiation, from getting a cold while their immune system was down. Most people with cancer died back then, but instead of thinking it can’t be done, we kept trying. Today no one would be okay with treating all cancer patients the same. Not only are the treatments for different families of cancer different (treating melanoma is very different than treating lymphoma) but treatments are specified within a family (different types of lymphoma are now treated differently). If we kept treating all cancer patients the same, we could conclude that you can’t cure cancer patients. In the same way, if we don’t develop solutions for people who don’t want to change and try using traditional solutions (that were designed for people who do want to change) we will keep assuming it can’t be done.

2. Psychology as the mother or coaching and organizational development: Daniel Siegel, one of my favorite authors about brain science and change as it applies to parenting and family dynamics, is a great example. I pick on Daniel both because I have tremendous appreciation for his work and because he is very savvy in neuroscience. But the models Daniel uses go against science in one specific area. Psychology was based on the notion that if you bring something to people’s awareness, they will be able to will change into happening. Here’s the thing: there is substantial research showing that behavioral change takes place while the brain is engaging the subconscious mind. We need to engage the implicit system too (the experience-based system in the brain) in order to lead to behavioral change, and this system is tied to subconscious activity in the brain. Psychology is designed to bring something from the implicit system (subconscious) to awareness (consciousness) and then you need to direct it back from the consciousness to create a subconscious change. Imagine you had to fix something deep in the ocean and you had a submarine in the deep. What we are doing under the influence of psychology (I think) is getting the submarine all the way up to the surface; we make sure it’s floating in order to tell the staff what’s wrong and then we ask them to dive right back all the way down. Wouldn’t it make sense to come up with some technology that would communicate with the sub while it’s in the deep?

Now that brain science has made so much progress, it’s high time we evaluate our own paradigms about change!


Coaching: Can You Change Someone Who Does Not Want to Change? Part II

We consider the statement “you can’t change people who don’t want to change” a truism.

When I started facilitating change, if someone needed to transform it was believed that it was the change agent’s job to give direction and insight, but it was the client’s job to implement or acquire the change. Developments in neuroscience make the answer simple: it should be the change agent’s job to guide organizations on how to lead to the commitment needed, how to overcome resistance, and how to go about change so that it is implemented and acquired quickly and in a lasting way. Facilitating change is a profession, not an intuitive practice based on intuition alone. Change agents should be able to offer practical solutions that take into account predicting and overcoming the obstacles to change.

Thanks to science, some challenges that didn’t have good enough solutions in the past can now be addressed differently:

  • Your team is fully aware of needed changes and seems to agree, but agreement and awareness aren’t followed by execution.
  • A manager is unwilling to acknowledge change is needed, which affects the moral and productivity of the manager’s team.
  • Your organization’s brilliant, technically valuable manager doesn’t work well with others, in spite of extensive coaching and training.
  • The multi-million dollar IT initiative is technically complete, but the new hardware is being used as a paperweight and employees are not using the new system.
  • You inherited a “difficult” team and despite your best efforts you find they are very difficult to manage and motivate.
  • Your organization is implementing a change (new culture/ six sigma processes/new regulations) but key people are not budging from the old way of doing things.

What is it that we know about brain science now that allows us to solve these challenges?

1. Implicit vs. explicit systems: in the past change was focused solely on engaging the explicit system in the brain. There is substantial research showing that both explicit AND implicit systems in the brain need to be engaged in order to achieve behavioral change. Many organizations and change efforts are already applying this principle. I had a great conversation a couple of weeks ago with the strategic wing of the HR department of Life Technologies, a Carlsbad-based large international biotech corporation. The leadership of the organization sees inclusion as a very important value and are trying to create a culture of inclusion (they have high diversity because of their international scope). In order to do that, the HR department is sharing with employees the experiences and experience-based vision of some of the leaders in the organization who embody inclusion. Another great example is Adobe: trying to create a comprehensive culture of customer experience management by collecting and sharing  case studies and examples of client success stories with employees to engage the implicit system. Changing people who don’t want to change by using this approach is consistently shown to work. The problem with using this as a stand-alone strategy though, is time. If you use only the principles relating to the implicit/explicit systems in the brain, you can expect that changing people who don’t want to change to take very long time. It’s important to remember that sometimes time can be the kiss of death for change. Not only is change sometimes much more urgent, but often keeping the energy needed in order to sustain change at a high enough level is draining, and the investment in the change effort dwindles with time to the point where it cannot achieve it’s potential.

1. The difference between learning and unlearning: A second critical component for the implementation of most change efforts is unlearning. Think about the steps you go through every time you learn something brand-new. Learning to ride a bike or cook for the very first time are good examples. What does learning require? How do you learn to DO something new? Now think about unlearning something. – changing your eating habits or time management habits are good examples. What does unlearning require? Which steps do you have to follow? It turns out there are five stages the brain goes through naturally to unlearn something (see: When people don’t change it’s because they get stuck on one of the five stages. Models on unlearning are used widely in areas from rehabilitation to language skills. Leading a coachee through the five stages expedites unlearning, making room for new response patterns (leading to new behavioral habits). Taking teams through the process of unlearning requires guidance, but once managers master it, the process itself is repeatable.  Without unlearning, people will resist change in a variety of different ways, both visible and invisible.

1. Managing resistance: traditional coaching models, like most change models, are designed to do everything to avoid resistance. We try to define goals upfront, try to connect with the motivation of the coachee, try to create transparency and trust. This is fantastic when the project does not have to deal with people who don’t want to change. In such cases, resistance is initially the main theme and most typically your coachee will not agree he/she is resisting in the way others see it. It is, hence, imperative to focus on changing their resistance response (KCI’s diagnosis is unique because it identifies which healthy resistance response a team needs, not what is wrong with the team, and then gets people to acquire this new resistance response). It is imperative to control when resistance will come up, what it will be directed to etc.

Our facilitators are certified to make change happen when other models fail. The solution we use is NOT better- it’s just different. It’s designed for a different purpose, to work to solve challenges we, as change agents, couldn’t solve well before. Thanks to developments in brain science, organizational development, coaching and other change professions  no longer have to say the client “isn’t committed enough” or “isn’t ready.” It is the profession of change agents to facilitate commitment and readiness but only a few years ago, this promise was out of reach. Thankfully, brain science provides most needed answers, making it possible for professionals and managers to orchestrate and facilitate a positive alternative for remedial coaching.

Coaching: Can You Change Someone Who Does Not Want to Change? Part I

Coaching is about facilitating positive change. What if your client does not want to change? How can you challenge them to change? What are some best practices to encourage changes in your clients or employees who resist change?

If you are like me, here are some strategies you probably used:

  • Motivate these people to care more about the goal or the benefits they personally will gain from achieving that goal – but what if they see no value or benefit in the needed change?
  • Bring forth some startling facts, which the person was previously ‘blind’ to – but what if the client/employee disputes them or assigns the responsibility for fixing them to someone else?
  • Build trust… practice patience, honesty and integrity – but what if the client/employee takes that effort to build trust and uses it to play power games and manipulate you and the situation?
  • Generate a small success and then showcase the resulting benefits to build the next step – but what if the client/employee manipulates the time together and makes it impossible to move forward?

Conventional wisdom and experience tells us that you cannot change someone who does not want to change, but is that really true?

Changing someone who doesn’t want to change is very difficult, almost impossible. For years the experience of trying to facilitate change in these cases felt like trying to pass an electric fence:  touch it or try to get through and you’ll be zapped.

The organization pushes coaching as a performance intervention on an individual. As a manager or coach, what should you do?

Terminating the coaching contract or discontinuing any effort to transform an employee offers the easiest solution. Many coaches walk away from people who don’t want to change. This is understandable because the alternative is a long and tedious journey and usually time isn’t exactly a plentiful resource.

There is another way, one that leads to breakthroughs in the most difficult cases in a matter of weeks and with very little time investment, but it will require accepting a new way of thinking about change.

Traditional coaching requires understanding and acceptance of shared reality as a starting point. Let’s say a client or employee sees everything only from her perspective? What if everyone else is complaining about her, but she thinks everyone else is the problem? How easy will it be to get her to agree to this starting point? People who don’t want to change don’t want to admit they are broken, so if you take the traditional coaching route, isn’t that the first thing you need to establish? If so, you are killing the success of the change before you even started!

Generally speaking, people don’t change because they are lacking effective response patterns.

  • Acquiring Effectiveness Response Patterns: Some individuals/teams really want to make the changes that will lead to desired outcomes, but for some reason they are unable to identify which steps are needed  in order to achieve their goals. A great example is someone who is fully aware and desirous of changing his time management choices or priorities in life. These cases require new effectiveness response patterns: a map that will identify for them what the right choices and priorities are. Give this group knowledge and they will integrate it into their lives.
  • Acquiring Sustainability Response Patterns: Think of someone trying to change eating habits, but is unable to sustain the new behaviors required. This group may have conflicting goals (“I want to eat well and lose weight vs. I also want to enjoy that cake”) or it may simply lack response patterns that are patterns that lead to accountability and sustainability. Traditional coaching helps tremendously here because it “outsources” accountability and sustainability for the client/employee.
  • Acquiring New Resistance Response Patterns: Many clients and employees resist change well. A client or an employee is included in this category if they are manipulative, are not willing to own their part and are generally unwilling to change. Traditional coaching will hardly ever work here because coaching requires agreement, and these cases stand out for being unyielding. Individuals and teams in this group will resist changing in any way possible every step of the way.

Look at people who don’t want to change as individuals or team who are lacking certain abilities. If they somehow acquired those abilities (more about that “somehow” next week) they would see the situation differently. However, because they are stuck, they don’t want to be coached.

To complete this post, read this. It outlines the experience of a fantastic manager who, despite her best efforts and despite using the best practices available to her at the time, could not support the transformation of one of her employees. See what a difference it makes to use the right tool for working with people who don’t want to change.

Next week:  Part II


Leadership: Which Team Did You Inherit and How Do You Get It to Work For You?

I saw this for the first time when I was a consultant in the military: sergeants who have seen many officers come and go, welcome a new officer with some degree of apathy. They don’t really bother to listen to the type of changes the officer requests and they are probably thinking, “We’ve been here for so many years. The officer just arrived. He doesn’t know how we do things and it’s best if he doesn’t disturb us and lets us do our job without trying to make too many changes.”

In the military, as it is sometimes in the business world, sergeants may know a whole lot more than the new officer and it would be wise to listen to them. It is, however, equally as common that new managers need to establish some changes in order to deliver better results; in which cases this dynamic between the old team and the new manager becomes somewhat delicate.

Lauren inherited a 7 year old team that was managed by the same manager for 5 years prior to Lauren’s arrival. The previous manager was let go because her department was not performing up to par. While the previous manager accused her team of being lazy and difficult, senior leadership saw it as the manager’s role to get her team to perform. When Laura met the team for the first time, it was very clear that team members had no intention of changing anything about the way they were doing things before. “They pout or tell me there is no way they are going to do what I ask them…One of the employees  keeps coming in late to work even though I clearly told her that is unacceptable…I’m thinking I may have to fire someone for them to take me seriously.”

Firing an employee works sometimes, but it can be avoided.

What to do? How do you get new managers to get an inherited team to perform for them?

1. Set a clear baseline for expectations: If you find it difficult to communicate your expectations clearly but kindly, that’s the first place you need to look. KCI and many excellent companies offer coaching and other models for managers and leaders. Sometimes, however, it’s not lack of skill that is getting in the way. Managers wait. They think that in time the team will get to know them, trust them and respect them, and that with respect will come cooperation. This is all great when the employees are following at least your authority if not your leadership. It doesn’t work well with manipulative employees who are trying to keep you from making as few changes as possible. Be respectful and clear. Define where your red lines are, communicate them in advance and continuously enforce them. Lauren made some changes to the way she communicated with the team (learning to feel very comfortable with her authority and using clear but kind communication). That was enough in her case, but it isn’t always the end of the story.

2. Get the team to speak your language: teams who want to do things their way don’t see reality the same way their manager does. When their manager says they need to work harder, their work code tells them the manager is overworking them. Teams that are used to their manager staying out of “their business” may respond with frustration if a new manager comes and asks to get reports of their work. Teams that are not used to effective meetings may complain that the manager doesn’t trust them. New managers often make this mistake. They don’t share with the team their clear expectations or they start sharing too many expectations, mostly to gain a sense of authority. Without setting clear boundaries around what’s okay and what isn’t, old teams often start manipulating the new manager in order to keep things unchanged. One manager of an engineering team in the biotech industry told me recently that his team, which he inherited more than a year ago, is constantly complaining: “They do their job and we meet our goals better than they ever have before, but they are constantly complaining because now they actually have to work instead of playing on the computer half of the time…” The problem is, they are not judging themselves by using the same standards, expectations and views their manager is using. Without aligning the language, this becomes an endless war, with each side trying to push to get as much as possible.

3. Overcome resistance: Teams resist in dysfunctional ways because they lack better ways to resist. We all resist change. It’s normal and, in fact, it’s a natural part of making lasting change. But resistance can be as little as saying: “I don’t feel comfortable with that right now, let me sleep on it” or asking: “Can we do this gradually or talk about the parts I have reservations about?” It does not have to be manipulating the manager or complaining. It comes down to the way people are programmed, which means you need to quickly identify what is missing in their arsenal of response patterns that is making them default to unhealthy ways of resistance. If you add new response patterns in, people start resisting differently. Learn how to transition your team to a healthy resistance response.

3. Figure out what is at the heart of the gap: Teams respond differently to the same situation when they look through different lenses. When the lenses the manager and the team are using are not the same, an invisible gap is formed. Managers who have excellent systemic thinking meeting a team that lacks this ability,for example,  may find it very difficult to get their team on board, unless they equip their team with systemic thinking. Managers make the mistake of figuring out which behaviors or execution patterns need to change and then describe to the team which new behaviors are required. If you have successfully dealt with resistance and you team had all the abilities to understand and execute in a way that meets your expectations, they would have already done so. If they are not, there is something they are missing, and it’s your job to give it to them.

Building a new team is often easier than entering an existing one. This is odd when you think about it because there is so much existing teams are already proficient at. You don’t need to teach them most tasks. They already have most of the expertise and knowledge they need. And yet, the effort of relearning, or re-teaching, is so great sometimes that it alone can get the team in lots of trouble.

What is your experience with inheriting existing teams? We’d love to share with you the nuances of what worked and what we find doesn’t work so well so that the transition will be smooth and seamless.

With questions or comments please contact Reut Schwartz-Hebron or Susan Vogel

What if Your Boss is the Problem?

It is not uncommon that the head of the organization needs to change in order for the organization to reach it’s full potential. While the defining the problem is typically far more complex than pinpointing the influence of one individual, one individual can certainly be the key for success.

What happens when your boss  doesn’t recognize that he or she needs to make changes in order for the organization to achieve desired outcomes?

  • Disconnect between higher management and the front-line -In some of the organizations we work with, higher management does not listen to middle management or to end employees. One such example is a high-tech company we worked with three years ago. The company quickly grew  from a start-up to a mid-sized company, with teams all over the world. Managers were raised from the lines and while they typically had excellent professional skills, they had little to no management training, which was made worse by the fast growth (many more junior employees  were promoted faster). This created all kinds of problems from senior executives having to take on a variety of roles which compromised their performances, to poorly managed meetings and lack of focus on goals and eventually to communication breakdowns and lack of “followship.” Employees and executives tried to voice their frustrations and concerns. HR constantly reported complaints about the performances of manager x or y and for the need of training or, basically, some sort of change. Still, the CEO of the company did not see the need to review the situation or do anything differently. Sometimes it may seem like the only solution is to wait until the pain is great enough for the CEO to acknowledge it. Pain is a good motivator for change, but there are other ways.
  • One-sided suppressing boss – I can’t think of too many examples of past clients in which the boss was the know-it all-one- man-show but one example stands out. This CEO of a medium sized software security company brought in A LOT of funding, both his personal capital and investors’ funding. Projects were many and priorities shifted quickly and often, making it very difficult for teams to develop products. The CEO surrounded himself with “yes sayers.” In the rare instance that a more critical thinking executive was recruited, any ideas for improvement that were followed by any kind of conviction on their part, led to their speedy termination. In these situations making any changes in the organization may seem nearly impossible, but if designed correctly, needed change is very possible.
  • The problem is with them, not with me – This is perhaps more common than we’d like to sometimes think. It’s true for CEOs as it is true for middle management as well as end employees. What do you do when the key person in a position of influence to improve results is convinced it isn’t him or her who needs to change, but that other people need to change instead? I could probably share tens of organizations in which this was the case. Naturally, insisting that the boss is blind and that he or she is the problem doesn’t work so well…of all three examples, this is the easiest to solve, but you will need to think of the solution in slightly unconventional ways.

When I began as a consultant – I don’t want to think how many years ago – the textbook solution was to confront the leader and get him or her to own up to their broken pieces. We would invest weeks in developing a comprehensive assessment, and then we presented it to the leader or leaders in the organization. It was a futile attempt to convince people who are sure you are wrong.

Granted, sometimes you are wrong. Sometimes the boss is the only sane voice in an ocean of lazy, self serving people. I’ve seen it happen, which is why I’m careful when I say the boss is the solution, even if they are not the problem (though we could argue the boss is eventually responsible for recruiting them and establishing the culture and performance standards that made it all possible). But in most cases, when employees and middle management share   vital feedback that isn’t heard (or when they are too scared or apathetic to share it to begin with), when you lose top talent too frequently, or when senior executives leave after brief careers next to the “great dictator,” to name just a few signs, it’s really the boss who needs to change.

Three action plans work better than any other when it comes to changing your boss:

  1. Start small. Change agents generally look at the whole picture first. That’s a great practice of course, but when the boss is blocking needed changes, it typically doesn’t work to try to promote a big scale change. Considering that in all likelihood the boss doesn’t see the problem and the solution in the same way you do, the first step should be to change his or her perception, not to insist you are right.
  2. Generate a local success, supported by measurable results. This would prove your point and only then do you present the need for change to the boss. One of the most common failing strategies I see is trying to reason with such a boss before generating concrete results. Every time I supported (or led) a change effort that failed, it was because I tried to get a boss to see things from another point of view before I could prove that my point of view would lead to concrete results. Select a team that can showcase success, preferably a team in which the start results have room for great improvement, and show growth.
  3. Have the boss mentor the change. Sometimes the boss sees the problem differently than you do and he or she is more than willing to invest in mentoring middle management to great results. This is not as common, but when that is the case, there is a great opportunity to influence dynamics, processes and interactions. The key here is to find  a way to focus on the goals from the boss’s perspective, but change processes and dynamics that block the organization in general.

In our work with organizations, like in the case of the above high-tech and software security companies, these three strategies alone can go a long way. The CEO of the high-tech company approved a small one-team pilot to develop a specific team leader who showed promise but had reviews that caused concerns. That small change, coupled with clear, measurable and tangible results convinced him to take another small step and that led to a natural transition.

Getting the CEO of the software security company to change his interactions with his team was a more delicate effort, mainly because it required starting with very high resistance. The key was to start change on small budgets (so that they won’t require his approval) and to have someone else in a senior position quietly manage the needed changes. Instead of trying to argue with the CEO about generating greater focus and reducing the frequency of changes to allow steady long-term product development, the change focused on working with teams to create a balance between addressing new needs and investing in development. This was coupled with constant communication about the important development work team x is doing side by side with their routine work, which gradually started to make sense to the CEO. It took years of small local changes before this particular CEO was willing to go the next step and start looking at the environment his communication style was creating, but in the meantime the company could stay successful.

Getting the boss to change can be tricky and each case should be carefully studied before any recommendations are made. That said, it’s not uncommon and there are ways to make needed changes by using methodologies that lead to measurable, concrete results.

Get in touch. Let’s talk about how to successfully make changes when the boss is blocking needed outcomes!

How to Avoid the Price of “I wish I Had Known He Felt That Way.”

It is not surprising that organizations are continuously trying to find clear solutions to better engage and retain their best employees because  turnover and disengagement are extraordinarily expensive. According to a Watson Wyatt study, a one standard deviation improvement in engagement is associated with a 1.9 increase in revenue per employee: “To put this in perspective, the typical employee in our sample works at a firm where productivity equals about $250,000 per employee. That means a significant improvement in engagement is associated with an increase in revenue per employee (productivity) of $4,675.”

And it’s not just recruiting and training time costs either. Once turnover and disengagement are noticeable by leaders, employees, and clients, it sends a message of instability and raises concerns that the company is not strong enough or successful enough to sustain it’s best people. That message reduces the value of the company in the eyes of everyone involved, which in turn may start a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our client executives tell us this issue is not uncommon:“…turnover of top talent, especially in senior positions, has now become a monthly occurrence. Initially I thought it made sense in our competitive market, but keeping top talent is quickly becoming one of our top priorities…when senior people leave frequently, it affects the stability of the organization as a whole. I’m not just talking about recruiting; it sends a message that something is wrong.” – President, high-tech industry

One of the hardest issues to overcome in this situation is that people don’t share how they feel. When good managers in good companies know how their employees feel, they can do something about it. So you hear experts encouraging managers to ask employees and to truly listen. Good managers do so directly, not just through surveys and HR departments. But what if employees choose not to tell us how they feel?

The reasons employees don’t share their concerns and how they feel are as nuanced as the reasons underlying why managers don’t really listen. This can be attributed to the culture in the organization, the individual personality of manager or employee, the capacity of the system to change, the overloaded employees experience and more. The solution, however, is always the same – people need to change in some way.

In the case of the above high-tech company (who agreed to share their experience under the protection of their anonymity), the leading dynamic that resulted in high turnover and disengagement stemmed from a very accommodating president and an overly aggressive COO. To put it gently, the expectations of senior executives recruited by the president did not match the reality of interacting with the COO. This led to a more systemic problem. Investors, seeing this high turnover rate, started getting concerned about the value of their investment. Their best employees did the math and those who got good offers from other companies did not hesitate to take the new offer.

So what can you do if your best employees won’t tell you how they feel?

Figure out who needs to change and how: KCI’s Solution Assessment™ identifies who in the system needs to change in order for the team or organization to achieve desired outcomes and which Key Strategies those individuals or teams need to acquire. In most cases the people who need to change are not just the most obvious suspects. It is common to think that the “troublemaker” (in this case the COO) is the one who needs to change, but in reality other team members need to make changes as well.

Each case is different of course. Sometimes when healthy values don’t make their way down, the change has to focus on the values of middle management. Other times it is the end employees who need to grow out of their doubt and suspicion. While each case is unique, the solution is always the same: the first step is to find who needs to change and what about them needs to change.

Overcome resistance to change: people don’t share their concerns or how they feel for a reason, but even if you know what that reason is, you still need to overcome their resistance to change. Some of the resistance to change comes from the system, but in this case, even after the COO made some substantial changes, the team around it refused to trust that the change was real. Most people don’t jump happily into change. They fear it, they lack the ability to make the change they are required to make (in this case other senior executives needed to let go of whatever resentment they had toward their COO and the dynamic between the COO and the president, but some of them lacked the ability to let go of past perceptions). People fear that the change is just a temporary fad…

Overcoming all these and many other types of resistance is KCI’s expertise. Giving teams access to scientific systems and models to deal with the “people” end of change, is already making a big difference in results: “This process is absolutely brilliant. It cuts through the confusion. It allowed us to pin-point exactly what we need to invest in…we are very impressed by how seamless and deliberate the solution was.” -President, high-tech industry

Increasing engagement and reducing turnover are big words. Many change solutions set up big programs, thinking the systemic approach will set the platform for the needed results. Surveys, employee appreciation week, employee-of-the-month and other such platforms are great tools, but we find that if you want to see a real change in results, you must look at the dynamics of the individuals who make up the the whole.