A CEO called me to brainstorm. “We’ve grown every quarter for the past four years,” he said. “It’s a tough environment, but we’re doing OK.”
“What’s your greatest obstacle?” I asked.
“We’ve kept growing because we try new things and rethink our processes continually,” he said. “We have a fantastic new strategy, but it’s harder and harder to push the leadership team’s ideas into execution.”
“Why’s that?” I asked him.
“My middle managers have had enough transition,” he said. “They’re ambivalent now, and I can see that without some intervention, they’ll be actively thwarting my change efforts six months from now.”
My CEO caller had identified half the challenge in his company. He was quick to spot the side of the problem that faced him—the fact that his trusted middle managers, the people responsible for daily blocking and tackling, were tiring of constant organizational reinvention. As the CEO pointed out, people in fear can easily see changes as threatening, and resist them.
What the CEO was slower to notice was that his own leadership style, the ubiquitous American management style—”We’ll read the tea leaves and decide what to do, here in the executive suite, and rely on our trusted middle managers to execute the strategy”—was failing him. People don’t trust what they don’t understand and aren’t part of. They don’t get excited about changes whose impacts aren’t clear at the outset. If the latest strategy shift could result in lost jobs, power, income, status, or other valuable currencies, why should a self-preservation-minded middle manager get on board?
Fear is the enemy of innovation and creativity, the very things employers need to thrive and grow in the global marketplace. But fear is rampant in corporate America, not a shocking realization given the downsizing and outsourcing that have characterized big-company employment for the past decade or more. What my CEO caller was realizing as he talked through his situation was that the same cultural messages he’d been using to get peak performance from his team—messages like “No one’s job is secure,” “Every one of us is dispensable,” and “We’re going to do whatever’s right for the business, regardless of the human fallout” were killing—or perhaps had already killed—the spark and energy that he and his customers (and shareholders) so desperately needed from his team, as well as the flexibility that would let people make changes on a dime, what the CEO most wanted to see from his people.
“You need to open the kimono,” I said. “You can’t play your cards close to the vest and expect your managers to follow your orders. They won’t do it, and we can’t blame them.”
“What are they afraid of?” the CEO asked me.
“They’re afraid of perfectly normal things, because they grew up with a normal person’s concern for his own well-being,” I sighed. “They’re afraid of having their team or their own job eliminated. They’re afraid of losing a title or a salary increase. After all, you told them those things were important, and anyone can see that they are important in organizations like yours. You can’t turn around in midstream and say ‘Just trust me. Everything will be fine.’”
“So you want me to involve 4,000 middle managers in strategic decision-making?” the CEO asked, incredulous.
“Only if you need their buy-in,” I said. “It’s not a complicated thing to do. You don’t have to sit down with each person yourself. You’ve got a hierarchy and an org chart—this sort of collaboration is what the thing was designed for.”
“That’s a time-consuming proposition,” said the CEO.
“Is it more time-consuming than undoing the damage your current don’t-ask-questions culture is causing you?” I replied.
“So what would do, if you were me?” he asked.
“I’d start by telling your managers and employers what’s going on in some detail, across the business,” I said. “Tell them in lots of different ways, in writing and in person and online. Get their opinions, and incorporate that feedback into your planning. Keep a backchannel open, because your folks on the ground know more about the business than you do.”
“What else?” he asked.
“Thank your team for navigating through the changes during the past few years,” I told him. “Give them incentives to focus on as you manage the next series of rapids. Make sure your people know that whatever happens, even if their jobs go away, the company will give them a soft landing.”
“Just how soft are we talking?” he wanted to know.
“What would you want for a soft landing, if it were you who were leaving?” I asked.