Do You Sabotage Your Own Change Initiatives?

Tom was really frustrated. He was the leader of a team that sold mobile phones. As part of the company’s renewed focus on improving customer service, his boss had asked him to make sure that his team followed up with 1 in 4 of their customers two weeks after a sale to make sure they were happy with their new phone. As part of this process the sales rep had to complete and then send the customer’s responses to the follow up questionnaire to the customer service department.

Some members of Tom’s team were reluctant to do this. They were resisting the changed process. They said things like:

  • we never had to do this before – they just want us to do more but without any extra resources
    we haven’t got time
  • why should we do it when we just cop flack because of problems that are not in our area
  • it’s just a fad – we’ve tried it before and nothing happens even if we send them the feedback

And before long, the more often the ‘resistors’ said such things, more team members started to put the follows ups on their backburner!

What Tom had done

Tom thought he had worked with his team to minimize resistance to change. He said he understood and had implemented the the RIV model:

  1. Reasons: he believed his team knew and understood the reasons for the new process. It was part of the company’s drive to get employees to take responsibility for their role in the bigger business picture and improve the company’s brand and reputation. That would translate into new and as importantly repeat sales and loyalty. He had told them this in the weekly team meeting.
  2. Implications: Tom said that after he told them about the change in work process at the team meeting, he asked them to identify and think about the implications and consequences of the new process. He asked them to raise any questions, their ‘what if’s’ and any fears. As very few questions or concerns had been raised, Tom believed that the team was comfortable with the new way of doing things.
  3. Values: again Tom believed that the team would be comfortable that the new process fitted with their values. He was confident that his team would be happy with any process that ensured the customer was satisfied with the way they and the company delivered on its promises.

So why was the team so reluctant to implement the new process?

When we asked the team members, they gave us a number of responses. For example, the work used to be done by another department that had just been closed down for ‘efficiency’ reasons. The team felt they were just pawns in a cost cutting game.

They also said that their performance agreements were based on the number of sales they made so there was nothing in it for them to take the time to follow up with all the extra work involved, especially if the customer wasn’t happy.

But some of the most interesting comments were about Tom. For example, “whenever we raise issues about work, Tom always promises to look into it and get back to us but he never does.”

And this: “Tom told us about this new process one day before it came into operation. We just didn’t have time to figure out how it would work and how we would fit it in.”

One of the most revealing comments was this: “Well Tom himself doesn’t agree with it. He told us that he thought it was a waste of time but that management said we had to do it.”

Tom is a role model – for what?

What was Tom doing as the role model here? What behaviours and attitudes was he modelling? Has he sabotaged his own attempts to get his team following the new process?

Think about children. How do they learn what to do, what’s acceptable and what’s not? What will bring rewards, what won’t.

Mostly it’s about observation and copying. I remember a party and hearing the 3 year daughter of some friends saying to the child she was playing with: “I simply can’t take this anymore” and slamming down her drink. Where on earth did that come from? All I know is that the mother turned bright red and the father looked equally as embarrassed.

Vicarious learning

In the same way I remember the look on my mother’s face and the tone of her voice when she said: “Do as I say, not as I do” in response to my cheeky responses like:” Why should I do that? You don’t…..” She knew I’d caught her out.

Whether we are at work or at home, our brains are always looking for shortcuts, for clues what to do and how to behave to ensure ‘survival’. We subconsciously take our lead from those around us especially those who are higher up the pecking order. Tom has said he doesn’t agree with the new process. He’s the boss. So without thinking it’s easy to just imitate. After all, he’s the leader.

We call this vicarious learning where simply by observing what goes on around us our brain learns what will we enhance our quality of life, bring rewards, ensure in basic terms our ‘survival’ and what won’t. If we see someone pick up a poisonous snake and get fatally bitten, we learn not to do that without having to do it ourselves.

If you see someone getting burned by putting their hand on a barbeque plate, you know not to do it. If you see someone at work still being successful even though they are not adhering to the stated values like co-operation or teamwork or supporting the new work processes, then why wouldn’t you do the same?

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

Mirror neurons may play a big role in this. We know that emotions are contagious. A sad or miserable person in an office can bring the whole mood of the office down. Just like a happy movie or upbeat music can change our mood and lift us if we are feeling blue. Why does this happen?

Way back in 1992, some neuroscientists working with monkeys discovered, by accident it seems, that when the monkeys observed a researcher eating an ice-cream, neurons lit up in the monkeys brain that mimicked the mechanical action of eating an ice-cream. The neurons fired as a mirror of what was being observed.

This research has been replicated in humans many times since. I know that you can think of examples. E.g.: if you are watching a movie, the TV or in real life, do you wince when you see something painful happen to another person? I do it all the time when I’m watching rugby and see a heavy tackle. So does the crowd – even been there and part of a big ‘oooooowwwwwwhhhh’?

And I cringe if I hear someone say something sarcastic to a colleague. Because of our mirror neurons, our brain ‘feels’ what the other person is feeling. It’s not surprising that mirror neurons are sometimes called empathy neurons.

As a manager, you are always on show

The critical message for us as managers is that when we have to bring about changes in the behaviour of others at work (or at home for that matter) we need to be actively conscious that subconsciously our team’s mirror neurons are watching us for information about how to behave.

We also need to remember that if we are inconsistent in what we say and what we do, our employees’ amygdalae will register the discrepancy and start working out what’s the best course of action to take to ensure ‘survival’ in the work environment.

Unless our staff is actively engaging their pre-frontal cortex, the logical and rational response, then without thinking they are likely to take the apparently proven route – i.e. to behave like the boss. And given how busy people are and how much pressure we are all under, we should not be surprised when people act just like us.

Tom was his own saboteur

As soon as Tom realized all this brain activity was going on, he realized that he was sending all the wrong subliminal messages about behaviour to his team.

If he didn’t follow up on issues his own team raised with him, then what messages was he sending them about following up with customers especially as they perceived it to be an onerous task with no reward.

If Tom said he thought it was a waste of time anyway, what was it that his team’s empathy neurons were figuring out? Probably that you don’t have to agree with what management wants and you can still get to manager level. So why bother. The fad will pass anyway.

What do you do to reinforce the kind of behaviours you want in your team? Are you consistent with the messages that you deliver? Do you believe in what you want your people to do? Do you model the customer service behaviours you ask of them in the way you treat your staff?

They’re not called mirror neurons for nothing. Go find a mirror and see if what you see is what they get.

© 2010 – 2014, Anne Riches. All rights reserved.

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