Fast Company

Creating Authentic Engagement for Change

Most of my work is with senior managers and executives, helping them to implement large-scale change using participation and engagement to create buy-in and support.
There are three conditions that require change leaders to shift from mandate (command & control) to authentic enthusiasm (connect & collaborate) to generate the results they are looking for:

1. Complex work environment - Work units, work programs, politics, budgets, and sponsors/customers/members do not have discrete, linear relationships. They behave like a multi-variable equation, influencing and overlapping each other. In a complex work environment you cannot rely on a simple, cause-and-effect chain of events to produce the results you are looking for. Instead, you need each participant in the value chain to be alert and working to create outcomes consistent with a clearly articulated vision.

2. Distributed workforce - Whether they are across the globe from each other or down the hall but isolated, people must be personally motivated to be take a proactive approach. Without this, they will simply work independently.

3. Multi-cultural or multi-disciplinary workers - When people come from different points-of-view,  they see the world in fundamentally different ways. They may read the same words, but their minds process the information in different ways. If you can help them make the transition from "what I have to do" to "what I want to do," you can rely on their best efforts to "walk a mile in each others' shoes."

What tools are available to spark and grow the enthusiasm of professionals? Here are three:

1. Story - Narrative has the power to reach deeply into the human psyche, motivate people, and provide memorable messages. Read this from a 2006 conversation I had with John Kotter, Harvard Business Professor and expert on change leadership:

"Five or six years ago I started thinking more consciously about my primary goal: helping people change what they do and get better results. I have spoken at hundreds of meetings. Increasingly it is clear to me that people have trouble remembering what they hear at these meetings. This means it isn’t having an impact on their decisions, their actions, and hence, results on the job.

"As I explored, I became very interested in the brain. I learned about neurology, and emerging fields like medical anthropology and the study of the brain’s evolution. I began to wonder how people learned 500,000 years ago. They didn’t have PowerPoint slides. It was from direct experience and stories of direct experience.

"Stories stick in the brain in a holistic way, better than charts, numbers and concepts. As a result the probability that the message will have an impact on behavior goes up.

"I am often approached by former students or people who have seen me speak. When this happens I make a habit of asking, “What do you remember about that session?” It’s amazing how often it is a story as opposed to anything that is conceptual or numerical."

2. Community - We need each other to test and apply what we know, surface new ideas, transfer our experience to current circumstance. We are social creatures at our core, and rely on the connections and synergies that arise in community to make sense of life, survive, and thrive. Community is the fundamental human learning system. Change leaders that make use of community in their work not only distribute leadership, they draw on people's shared passion to inform the work. I was recently interviewed on the link between community and brand - there is quite a bit in this article that is relevant.

3. Special Events - Bringing people together face-to-face for a shared experience can move progress forward in dramatic surges.  It requires a skilled choreographer to create gatherings that are both professionally appealing and achieve extraordinary impact. Change leaders that master this form have a powerful tool to engage the authentic ardor of their constituents.

- Seth Kahan, VisionaryLeadership.com

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