Why Do They Keep Doing That?

What is the half-life of a New Year’s Resolution? Apparently not very long. The new year is still young and already I’m hearing managers complaining about how none of the promised, worked-for, much talked about changes are occurring. After a brief flurry of action, everything pretty much fell back to status quo. It’s not that any of the resolutions this particular business made have been officially cancelled; rather, no one is taking them seriously.

Shouldn’t the CEO take action? After all, it’s a terrible economy: doesn’t she have a very powerful weapon to get things to happen her way at her disposal? Much as one might think so, the problem is that no one actually believes that she takes the changes seriously. So far, for all her apparent efforts to the contrary, she’s proving the naysayers correct.

The problem is that it’s hard to change what we do. Particularly in a business environment, the way things are done all too often reflect some very strongly held beliefs about the best way to do things. In other words, people solve problems a particular way, run meetings a particular way, or do a host of other things a particular way because previous experience convinced them that’s the way that works best. Sounds obvious, right? After all, don’t most of do the things that we are convinced work best? Of course we do!

It’s just that sometimes we’re wrong. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to change our ways without a fight. Athletes learn this lesson all too often: once a fencer has trained a particular way of thrusting with their sword, the fact that it’s no longer hitting doesn’t result in an immediate change. Rather, there needs to be a period of trying ever harder before the fencer accepts that they need to learn something new. Even then, the old, familiar way will tend to come up under stress for a long time thereafter.

Now that could never happen in business, right? I worked with one training company that brought in a new CEO. The new CEO saw some real opportunities to streamline the process by which content was developed and instructors were trained. It seemed so simple, so logical, above all, so obvious, that he never imagined anyone would disagree. He enthusiastically announced his plans.

The resultant explosion left him just a tiny bit shell-shocked. The more he tried to convince people to change, the more viciously they fought back. Fortunately, he recognized that he was on the verge of having his company disintegrate around him; even though he could win the fight, the number of people who would quit or be fired would cripple the company. He looked for expert help, and together we were able to solve the problem.

This CEO took his changes seriously.

It’s easy to say that you can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. In fact, that line is so misunderstood that outside of trivial situations, it causes more harm than good.

One of the best ways of promoting organizational change is to talk the talk. You just have to do it right. You need to bring the changes to life through your talk. In fact, talk is the CEO’s most powerful tool: the more you speak enthusiastically and vividly, the more people will take you seriously. Fill in the details and show people just how excited you are at the idea of making that future real. If you mouth the words and appear disinterested or lacking enthusiasm, however, no one will believe the talk no matter how much you walk the walk.

Actions don’t always speak louder than words. If the words aren’t there, the actions aren’t believed or are misinterpreted.

Once you have the words, though, you can add in the actions. It helps, of course, to add in the right actions.

The simple act of highlighting and commending the behaviors that fit with your vision and ignoring the behaviors that do not is one of the most powerful actions you can take. Remember my point that people do what works? If you want to change what people do, you have to make the new behavior succeed right from the start. That simple step, often overlooked, is a key part of making those New Year’s resolutions turn into solid goals that your business will enthusiastically pursue.

Walking the walk only counts when people follow you. People only follow you when you know what to say and how to say it.

As for that CEO who was not being taken seriously? The next step is up to her. Only when her words inspire her staff and when her actions and her words come together will people change what they do. Otherwise, they’ll stay right where they are and nothing will be different.

There’s plenty of time and opportunity left in the year; how are you preventing your company from getting stuck?