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Managing People Politics

Managing People Politics

Acknowledge Their Loss

Remember that when you ask people to do adaptive work, you are asking a lot. You may be asking them to choose between two values that are important to the way they understand themselves.

You may be asking people to close the distance between their espoused values and their actual behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr challenged Americans in that way during the civil rights movement. Confronting the gaps between our values and behaviour - the internal contradictions in our life and community - requires going through a period of loss. Adaptive work often demands some disloyalty to our roots. To tell someone that he should stop being prejudiced is really to tell him that some of the lessons of his loving grandfather were wrong. Yet the status quo may not look so terrible to those immersed in it and may look pretty good when compared with a future that is unknown. Exercising leadership involves helping organisations and communities figure out what, and whom, they are willing to let go. Of all the values honoured by the community, which of them can be sacrificed in the interest of progress?

People are willing to make sacrifices if they see the reason why. But beyond clarifying the values at stake and the greater purposes worth the pain, you also need to name and acknowledge the loss itself. It's not enough to point to a hopeful future. People need to know that you know what you are asking them to give up on the way to creating a better future. Make explicit your realisation that the change you are asking them to make is difficult and that what you are asking them to give up has real value. Grieve with them, and memorialise the loss.

Model the Behaviour

Avram was the CEO of a highly successful chemical factory in Israel. One day an explosion occurred on the line, tragically killing two of his employees. He quickly pinpointed the source of the problem and took steps to ensure that it could not happen again.

But whatever he did seemed not enough. Many of his best workers feared coming back to work. They had lost confidence in the safety of the factory, and nothing he said reassured them sufficiently to return to the location where their colleagues had died or to work at their previous level of productivity. Avram came to a decision. He resigned as CEO and took a job on the line, right at the spot where the explosion had taken place. Slowly, workers began to return and production began to creep upward. The company eventually turned a corner. Ten years later, it had become one of the largest in Israel, much more profitable than it had been before the accident.

The CEO had to acknowledge the loss he was asking the workers to accept, in this case the loss of a sense of personal safety. Because their fears were so deep, verbal acknowledgment would not suffice. He had to model the behaviour.

But even symbolic modelling can have substantial impact. When Lee Iacocca reduced his own salary to $1 during Chrysler's troubles, no one worried that Iacocca would go without dinner. But the fact that he was willing to make a personal economic sacrifice helped motivate employees to do likewise as part of the company's turnaround plan.

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