Seven Powerful Actions to Become the Force for Change in Your Company
by Kate Ludeman, Ph.D and Eddie Erlandson, MD

What causes the time-draining and energy-sapping relationships most of us experience in our companies? Poor communication, dishonesty and fear characterize business as usual today and create the by-product we call Corporate Sludge. Our two default modes of operation - protectiveness and pleasing people - create interpersonal muck and mire that slow progress to a crawl and snuff out any movement toward change.

Do any of these descriptions sound familiar?

The Seven Ingredients of Corporate Sludge

  1. Time pressure and business complexity lead to packed meeting agendas, which attempt too much in too little time; aka conning yourself.

  2. The same predictable people comment in meetings, discussions drift into rat holes, opinionated people push for their way, while several key players withhold their ideas and pretend to agree; aka fail to tell the whole truth.

  3. Time pressure leads to snap decisions with fuzzy follow-up actions or no actions; aka set up low accountability.

  4. After meetings, people complain and vent in the hallways; aka gossip.

  5. People bring personal agendas to top execs and lobby for change; aka politics.

  6. The manager listens, changes the decision in private and communicates the change by osmosis; aka the rumor mill. People complain when the decision is changed, but no one mentions this directly to the manager; aka more gossip.

  7. No one takes responsibility for the communications lapse and for implementing the decision across work teams. People complain that they heard about the decision by accident, instead of figuring out how to get into the communications loop; aka blame.

Sludge includes anything that slows us down - from rigid attitudes to overly complex procedures, time spent in turf battles and energy expended not being real. Many of us have mud lines along our ankles from working in Corporate Sludge. Chances are you want to make a difference but don't believe you have the resources to create real results. You may believe there is something "out there" you need before you can make the right choices to have a significant impact. But you do have what it takes - if you're willing.

Want to change your company?
First change yourself.

Most companies seem to be driven by fear. Rigid attitudes, overly complex procedures and turf battles prevent any real progress. This can change if even a few people are willing to stop blaming outside events and coworkers and explore the ways they themselves have created repeating patterns of frustration.

You've probably gotten where you are by using your amazing, analytical left brain. The commitment to radical change requires mastery of other "soft" skills you may have never brought to work. In fact, you may have thought they didn't belong on the job, but we've seen hundreds of companies add millions of dollars to their bottom lines as a result of implementing even a few of these actions. Here are seven ways to create radical change in your company by radically changing yourself:


Action 1: Learn on the Run

If you're not learning on the run, you're dying on the vine. Dropping your defenses and taking in all feedback has become the critical difference between success and failure, but many people prefer being right to being successful or even to feeling good. As long as you stay stuck in "That's just the way I am and that's just the way they are," you increase the inertia in your company and guarantee that you both fail to live up to your potential. When you become truly open to learning, you feel surprised by your problems, which will constantly change because you're ending old, self-defeating patterns and expanding into new experiences (and salary levels).

Don't justify your resistance because of your manager's tone. Take feedback any way you can get it. If she delivers it at high volume, frothing at the mouth and sputtering obnoxious words, extract what's useful and move forward.

Here are specific behaviors to help you measure your openness to learning on the run:

Shifting from Defensiveness to Learning

High Openness to Learning

+10 Implement (plan action, request support for follow-up).

+9 Feel and show a genuine enthusiasm about the possibilities for making a change.

+8 Think out loud, making new associations about the issue.

+7 Take full responsibility for the issue and the results that were created.

+6 Request information and examples about the issue.

+5 Openly wonder about your role in creating the issue.

+4 Express genuine curiosity about the issue and how to resolve it.

+3 Express appreciation for the messenger and the message, regardless of delivery.

+2 Show you listened by summarizing the key points without interjecting your own thoughts.

+1 Look interested; demonstrate an open posture.

The Key Move: Choose Learning over Defending

- 1 Show polite interest, while inwardly preparing your rebuttal.

- 2 Explain how the person misperceived the situation.

- 3 Justify and excuse the situation by providing a "logical" reason for the problem.

- 4 Interrupt to give your perspective.

- 5 Interpret what the person is saying as an undeserved attack.

- 6 Make snippy replies and nonverbally show your irritation.

- 7 Blame someone or something else.

- 8 Intimidate or attack the messenger.

- 9 Complain about decisions and criticize people who aren't present.

- 10 Comply with no intention of actually doing what you say you'll do.

Low Openness to Learning

Action 2: Tap Your Bodymind Intelligence

To make the wisest, most transformative decisions, learn to use the multidimensional intelligence and intuition you carry around with you wherever you go. Your bodymind invites you to slow down to go fast. It also helps in anticipating future trends and recovering from upsets and losses more quickly. The two most powerful ways to tap into bodymind wisdom are by feeling your feelings and by being completely, totally present.

Our bodymind's messages can lead us to deeper truth in deal making and decisions of all kinds. It's no accident that phrases such as "gut-wrenching," "cold feet," "breathtaking," "heart-stopping," "hot-headed," "tight-fisted," "nose out of joint" "ears were burning" and "pain in the neck" have become part of our everyday language.

Most of us have very active voices in our heads that rattle on all day, leaving little space for noticing how we feel, what our body is attempting to communicate to us, and what's actually occurring in the subtle messages in the people around us. We've tended to discount our emotions - operating on the mistaken assumption that unless we check our emotions at the door, we'll shut off our brains and make suboptimal decisions at work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many employees today believe, "I'm afraid because of all the changes going on in the company and in the world," which leads them to feel like a victim of circumstances. A more accurate and responsible way to describe emotions in this case might sound like: "I'm feeling afraid. Brett just lost his job, and I'm afraid that may happen to me." Keep the focus on yourself. Undeniably, we feel emotion. What we "make up" is the cause. "I feel ___ because ____ is a figment of my imagination."

We use lots of different words to describe our emotions, and most of these combine some variation of the basic four: anger, sadness, fear and joy. Anger usually means you feel someone has crossed a boundary or that something unfair is happening. Sadness comes from any kind of loss, including a career change or your view of yourself. Fear often stems from uncertainty or a feeling of lack of control. Embarrassment isn't actually a feeling, but it indicates that some feelings aren't being felt. Use it as a cue to go deeper.

Emotional Escalation & Body Awareness

Mild Strong Physical Manifestation
Irritated Frustrated Angry Tense shoulders and neck, jaw clenched
Worried Anxious Afraid Fluttering in belly, tension in face
Disappointed Sad Sorrowful Tears, lump in throat, aching chest
Content Happy Joyful Bubbling feeling in chest, watery eyes

Action 3: Drop the Roles that Bind You

Most stress and upset in every company result from the ways we get stuck in dramas and inauthentic patterns of behavior. Authenticity - congruence between your inner state of being and your outer behaviors and actions - makes you a high-integrity player, speaking the same things to others that you say inside your head. A lack of authenticity creates a psychic drag (i.e. sludge) on your company and on yourself, and that drag becomes more harmful as business accelerates.

Do you recognize any of the following players in yourself or in your coworkers?


One of our all-time favorite moments of authenticity occurred a few years ago when an executive team at a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company was debating about a new acquisition. The room crackled with tension. Suddenly the CFO, a very large man known to be gruff and tough, commanded the room by waving his arms the way Texas Tech Coach Bobby Knight avoids a penalty with thirty seconds on the clock. He bellowed, "Mr. Rant and Rave is about to show up and I can't stop him!"

Bursts of belly laughter instantly broke the tension. The COO conceded his original position and the acquisition plans were halted.

Needless to say, had the unconscious version of Mr. Rant and Rave appeared, no one would have laughed. Folks would have either gotten hooked and escalated the uproar, tuned him out, or disappeared. The meeting objectives would have dangled at the edge of the cliff. Instead, his pronouncement helped others let go of their defenses.

Action 4: Take Responsibility

Many people seem to feel more responsible for explaining their results than for achieving them. Accountable individuals, on the other hand, make solid agreements and take 100% responsibility for their experiences and commitments. They look inside themselves, wondering about their contribution to problems, rather than lashing out and making them somebody else's fault. They communicate frequently with updates, they're reliable on tight deadlines, and they rarely drop the ball or manipulate reality to stand solo in the spotlight. If they must change an agreement, they let those who will be affected know, and renegotiate the agreement.

Remember the Rule of Three. If someone in the group interrupts and talks over me once, I'm not responsible. But if the same person does it three times or if three different people interrupt me, then it's wise to wonder what I can do to change it. If someone gets irritated with me once, it's their problem. By the third time, I am also responsible for taking corrective action.

Likewise, if someone doesn't keep a commitment with you, they're 100% responsible the first time. If someone in the group discards or discounts your intuition once, they're 100% responsible for that. By the third time, they're 100% responsible and so are you - for consistently producing that result in your life.

Questions that Invite Accountability

  • What is it about my attitude or behavior that keeps this going?

  • Is there anything I'd like to communicate but haven't?

  • Have I broken or missed any agreements?

  • What can I learn from this situation?

Several years ago the executive leading Motorola's semiconductor business asked me (Kate) to work with him and his team to raise the quality and effectiveness of their meetings. After three days, I reported my observations, calling them on their extensive hallway conversations after meetings that had very little discussion. I talked to them about complaining, criticizing and gossiping and behaving like victims instead of speaking their truth.

Although I had a close relationship with this team, they responded to this report with icy silence. Finally, after three of the longest minutes in recorded meeting history, Mario Rivas, a dynamic leader and one of the star performers, broke the silence and took a radical action. "I'm choking on the words, but I have to say I'm a gossip." He then proceeded to confess to their faces what he had said about these same people behind their backs. As he owned his behavior and committed to speaking up more in meetings, he created the opening for many other people to do likewise. It became a radically responsible meeting with breakthroughs none of us will ever forget. I recently heard from Mario, who's now an EVP of Royal Philips Electronics, and he credits much of his ensuing success to that pivotal moment of accountability.

Action 5: Tell the Truth

Lies occur at epidemic levels in companies. About 95 percent of the time, we lie because we want to control the uncontrollable: others' reactions or emotions. If you mislead someone, address it immediately. Truth instantly gets all the information out on the table so everyone involved can quickly make the right decisions with the benefit of all details and opinions. True power and enormous speed result when people deal directly with the truth and with one another.

Basic Truth Tool Set

  • Recognize your own truth slips.

  • Speak responsibly from your own perspective.

Three Quick Ways to Face the Truth

  1. What feeling am I not facing?

  2. What experience am I not communicating?

  3. What agreements am I not keeping?

The majority of unhappiness in our lives comes from these three places. As soon as you face them, you'll fast forward into far greater ease and speed. Perhaps you've done something you feel guilty about and you haven't come clean with the other person. You may feel angry with someone or hurt about something that someone has said, and you haven't told the person directly. If you don't communicate the truth directly, you won't feel good, and your inner self will keep reminding you with random flashes and thoughts.

Perhaps you didn't follow through on a commitment. Or you did something you said you wouldn't. These little moments of slipped integrity - even agreements as small as saying we'll take out the garbage and then we don't - tend to drag our energy down and create an unsettled rattle in us. All we have to do to get back into integrity is handle the broken agreement - again, through some kind of direct communication.

When I (Kate) was HR VP of KLA-Tencor, I caught myself not telling the truth in the middle of a conversation with our CEO about a compensation program for our brilliant technologists. I wasn't lying, but I certainly wasn't disclosing all that I knew. I told myself this was more data than he needed. But when I looked inside I realized that I wasn't disclosing everything because it might make it harder to get what I wanted.

This was one of those moments when the world simply stopped. Everything turned into slow motion. I realized if I wanted impeccable integrity in my life (which I did), I would have to give up everything I knew about getting my way. I chose to tell the whole truth. My proposal was not adopted, but my decision to tell the truth so strengthened my relationship with the CEO that he gave me the latitude to implement a bonus program that later won recognition from several professional organizations for its trend-setting impact.

Is there someone with whom you need to communicate? Is there something that you need to do? What will actually heal and resolve this particular issue? Each time we're willing to tell a hard truth we become happier, lighter, faster.

Action 6: Awaken Your Sleeping Giant

Most companies focus their time and energy on improving employee weaknesses rather than capitalizing on their talents and strengths. Truly successful people get "good enough" at basic skills, then optimize their natural gifts, their areas of genius. They also recognize where they don't need to be a genius and delegate those areas to others. When you align your purpose and genius with your jobs and your company's genius, efficiency, productivity, satisfaction and joy skyrocket.

Consider how Tiger Woods developed his gifts and delimited his shortcomings when he worked with coach Butch Harmon reinventing Tiger's greatest asset - his swing. They could have focused on his greatest weakness - sand shots (he was ranked 61st in this particular "competency") - but they didn't. They didn't spend an hour or a minute on sand shots. They focused instead on expanding his genius. When Tiger Woods won the British Open the following year, his swing was so superb, he was the only player who didn't have to contend with a single sand trap during the four-day tournament at St. Andrews - a course known for its treacherous "pot hole" bunkers.

The difference between masters like Tiger Woods and most companies is that companies focus on sand shots.

Genius Zones

Identify which of your skills and abilities belong in each quadrant.


  • What do you consistently get positive feedback about in your work?

  • What do you do better than just about anyone else?


  • What work do you so love doing that it doesn't seem like work?

  • What parts of your work generate the highest ratio of positive results compared to time spent?


  • What do you consistently get negative feedback about in your work?

  • What work do you do that just about everyone can do better?


  • What work do you do that others can do just as well or better?

  • What work do you do well but doesn't feel totally satisfying?

Action 7: Express Appreciation

As much as 80 percent of conversations at work contain critical comments because most people tend to notice what's missing, rather than what's working well. You may incorrectly assume your coworkers feel appreciated because they haven't received negative feedback, but vibrant, sustainable, collaborative relationships require a ratio of 5:1 positive experiences to negative ones.

Appreciating a personal quality rather than a skill usually touches people more deeply than appreciating contributions, behaviors or abilities anyone could provide. Instead of saying, "Thanks for responding so promptly to my e-mail," say, "Thanks for your prompt e-mail. I'm touched by how deeply you understand my challenge." The first sentence, without the second, will deliver little effect.

One CEO we worked with was thrilled with his VP's work and had given him a substantial bonus but hadn't used actual words to tell him because he was sure the executive knew it anyway. I (Kate) asked the CEO to take the next step and express his appreciation with words. He went to the VP and said something like, "I appreciate the big difference you've made in the business you're leading. People feel more passionate about their work, and the bottom-line results of the business have dramatically improved."

The VP's response was, "What's wrong?"

No wonder it's so hard for most of us to express appreciation when we have such a poor ability to accept it! What's your favorite way to deflect appreciation?

Appreciation Filters

  • Discounting: Anyone would have done the same. You do what you have to do! I was only doing my job.

  • Deflecting: You shouldn't have!

  • Putting yourself down: I worked hard, but I didn't do as well as I should have.

  • Explaining: I did the best job I could under the circumstances.

  • Distracting: Let's talk about our upcoming project. Last time I was in front of an audience . . .

  • Joking: You should have seen this funny scene at the meeting.

  • Complimenting: You're so nice to say so. In fact, you're one of the nicest people I get to work with.

Instead of stopping the flow of appreciation, simply say, "Thank you." You may also need to repeat your appreciation of others several times until they "get it."

The Ripple Effect

Making real change may seem like a formidable challenge, but the only limitation in changing our companies and the world around us is the way we think. If you commit to shift your own consciousness and take visible, in-the-world action, you can unleash the power to change more than yourself, more than your immediate work team and more than your own personal life. These seven actions have completely transformed our lives and the lives of thousands of clients. They're yours now. Welcome the next change in your life and embrace it as the pathway for your next level of learning. Take action and realize your dreams. Your next decision determines the future of our world.

Kate Ludeman, Ph.D and Eddie Erlandson, MD are authors of Radical Change, Radical Results: 7 Actions To Become the Force for Change in Your Organization (Dearborn, May 2003). Their company, Worth Ethic Corporation, has coached more than 1,000 senior executives in a wide range of industries and on every continent. Over a million employees who report to these executives have been indirectly touched by their work. Visit for additional information.

Radical Change, Radical Results:
7 Actions To Become the Force for Change in Your Organization
by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson
May 2003

Many more articles in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson. All rights reserved.

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