A number of years ago, I was supporting a change effort at a financial services company. Now, let me start out by telling you that I was completely traumatized about this assignment, and it stands as one of the most challenging projects and clients I have ever supported. However, since ending the project, I’ve come to realize that assignment was one of my greatest learning experiences.
Let me give you some background: For clarity, let’s call this project the “Platform Project.” The new technology solution was going to be a huge change for the organization as they had been working in their old system for nearly a decade. Change managers were partnered with a primary point of contact for each of the impacted groups within the company, and my role as change manager was to develop and execute a customized change plan for my assigned group, with input from the primary point of contact.
I was decked against the largest audience and was supporting the most challenging point of contact. His style was…hmm…how do I put this? Direct. Ok. Not just direct. He was mean. He would belittle my suggestions. He would betray my confidences. He didn’t care about how his audience felt about the change. I specifically remember him saying, “I don’t care how they feel about this! They either get onboard or get out!” I felt undervalued. I felt worthless. I felt like all the work I had done to gain change management knowledge and experience was completely pointless. My certifications meant nothing to him. I began to question everything I knew. I was afraid to make recommendations based on my experiences and standard change management best practices. I cried in the bathroom a lot. I backed down and just did what he told me he wanted me to do. I became meek and timid.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? I hope not, but I have a feeling most of us have been (or will be) in a similar situation sometime in our careers.
Dr. John Bennett recently presented to our Charlotte Metro chapter about how our own frame of reference can limit our impact. His presentation brought back some memories of this Platform Project and the personal developmental work I have done since that time in my career. I have reflected extensively about what I would have done differently if I could do it all again. I want to share some of these learnings with you so, if you are in a similar situation now (or in the future), you might be able to handle it better than I did.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
At the time, I felt threatened by this client and never stopped to think about how I (I would not italize this as it looks like a slash) was contributing to the situation. The way I saw it, we were on opposite sides…adversaries. We both put up our defenses and dug into our own individual perspectives. I was right therefore he was wrong. I spent more of my mental energy thinking of ways to influence him to my way of thinking rather than listening to his perspective on this audience – an audience he knew far better than I did! If I could go back and do it again, I would focus more on listening to his needs, his knowledge about the audience and what his definition of success was rather than trying to force my beliefs and change tactics on him.
Come down the ladder
Chris Argyris developed the theory of the ladder of inference, which describes the thinking process we all go through to reach a conclusion. The lowest rung represents data and facts, what is really happening. As we move up the rungs of the ladder, we begin to introduce our own experiences, filters, assumptions, beliefs and meanings to this data/situation to reach our own conclusions. The faster we climb that ladder without stopping to step down a rung or two to question our assumptions, the more likely we are to come to an inaccurate conclusion.
As I reflect back on this time in my career, I can realize now I was at the top of that ladder, and never once stopped to think about how I got there. I assumed he didn’t know what he was doing (because he’d never led a change effort before). I assumed that I was the only one who was right and knew what to do. I assumed that he was being malicious and was out to get me and ruin my career. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing, which probably would have weighed heavily on him, right!? Maybe that fear was the source of some of his animosity towards me. But I’ll never know, because I never came down that ladder to ask him.
Call it like you think it
A couple years after the Platform Project, I was working with an extremely effective change manager who taught me to think about the way I think in a different way. She used a phrase that I didn’t originally understand. She would always say, “I make up that you are…blah, blah, blah.” Or “I make up that this audience will…yadda yadda yadda.” One day, I said to her, “Tell me more about this phrase you always say: ‘I make up…’ What’s that all about?” She explained to me that she was naming her assumptions. Putting them out there to be confirmed or refuted. Being clear and upfront about how her own beliefs were shaping her thoughts and decisions…asking her clients to confirm her assumptions or help her think differently about something. She was stepping down the ladder of inference.
I was completely taken aback. I sat there thinking about how my assumptions were the basis of big decisions I was making about the change effort I was working on at the time and how I never stopped to confirm them. I thought back to the Platform Project and how much more effective I could have been if I had stopped and said, “I’m assuming…XYZ…can you confirm or refute this? Can you help me better understand where you are coming from when you make this recommendation?”
Naming my assumptions and asking for confirmation is a practice is still use today. I find that the bigger the decision, the bigger the assumption I’m making and the more I need someone to confirm it. I believe this practice has increased my effectiveness with clients exponentially. I don’t pretend to be perfect, I don’t pretend I know everything. I believe that showing that level of vulnerability and genuine curiosity helps me build better relationships with my clients. I wish I had this skill years ago.
An assumption worth holding onto
There is one assumption I feel is worth holding on to. It is this:
Assume positive intent
I can say with a high degree of certainty that all of us – change managers and clients alike – are all trying to do the right thing for our impacted audiences. Our clients aren’t out to get us or ruin or careers or throw us under the bus. They are just doing what they think is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not, I know. But that’s where our relationship skills, experiences and knowledge have to come into play. We have to assume they want to do the right thing, but maybe they are higher on the ladder than they need to be, and we need to coach them to come down and think about the conclusions they are making. My difficult client was indeed direct, disrespectful, undiplomatic and mean, but I allowed those behaviors to morph from just horrible personality traits into an assumption of his intent. Just because he was mean didn’t mean he wasn’t also trying to do the right thing. Just because he was undiplomatic and disrespectful didn’t mean he was trying to ruin my career.
Pain is weakness leaving the body (and soul)
I think the thing that really bothers me the most about the Platform Project is that I bailed. I found a new job and left. Although I’d supported that work for a number of years, I never got to experience the full deployment. I ran away because I felt so damaged. Looking back, I wish that I’d had the emotional intelligence and resiliency to bring that project across the finish line. But, I did continue analyzing what went wrong and what I could have done better, which has allowed me to continue to learn and grow from the experience.
I really hope for each of you that you don’t have to experience an assignment like I did. But, if you do, or if you are right now, I encourage you to stop, come down the ladder and check your assumptions while assuming positive intent. Actively listen and be willing to expand your mind to allow someone else’s perspective in. And, maybe most of all, know that getting through the challenges you’re facing now will make you stronger for the future.