At first glance the task appeared impossible. As the Regional Director Dave had been operating by his own rules for nearly two decades. He had a well-earned reputation for being a coercive leader who consistently seemed to demand more from his team, while offering less support. Dave’s approach was fortified by the fact that his team somehow managed to increase their productivity nearly every year despite how he treated them. Steve recently joined the company to work for Dave as his Area Manager and he quickly witnessed the effects of Dave’s leadership style. Within his first month Steve had two employees leave the company, one threatened to quit and several more told Steve his ideas would never work because Dave would never change.
In the face of such overwhelming organizational resistance Steve asked for a meeting with his mentor Joe to try to find a solution. During the meeting Steve and Joe worked through several similar examples and evaluated each one for possible solutions to Steve’s problem. At the end of the meeting Steve looked at Joe and said “It looks like if I’m going to get the most out of my team, I’m going to need to motivate Dave to change.” Joe simply smiled and nodded, to which Steve replied “I can’t do that.”
Steve’s problem is not unique. In fact, many of us face seemingly impossible personal and professional challenges every day. Your personal challenges may include losing weight, learning a new hobby or dealing with your in laws. Your professional challenges may range from developing a new team, overcoming a poor leader, completing a sale with a tough client or getting an interview subject to tell the truth. Anytime we are presented with a new, potentially insurmountable task, the first answer we often jump to is “I can’t…”
When people say “I can’t…” they are leaving out one very important word – easily.
What they are really saying is: “I don’t currently see enough value in completing this task to invest the necessary effort.”
Very few people love change. Most of us would prefer to avoid change just to avert the general discomfort associated with the process, making a long term commitment, and taking the risk of losing what we already have. In more difficult scenarios people avoid change because they believe a history of past behavior has made future changes either worthless or impossible. To top it all off, our brains are hard wired to prefer consistency. We are predisposed to resist any idea that does not align with what we already believe.
Inspiring a commitment to change can be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible. Here are ten steps to help move your counterparts (and yourself) from “I can’t…” to “I did.”
1. Accept the response – don’t argue. Arguing the point will cause them to defend their positions and increase their resistance to your new idea. Simply reply by saying “Ok” and proceed by asking clarification questions, offering a new perspective or temporarily changing the subject.
2. Consider their likely fears and motivations. Most people resist change because their fears, or perceived risks, dictate their initial reaction. Pause and think about what they could be afraid of. Also ask yourself what this person would want to get out of this situation. Don’t just consider surface motivations, look for underlying motivations as well.
3. Reverse engineer your strategy. “I can’t” is often the result of an obstacle focused mindset. Manage the perception of these obstacles by focusing on the end result and working backwards to where you are today.
4. Evaluate their previous actions. Look back through your experiences and examine how they’ve acted in similar situations and how they’ve accepted any previous opportunity to change.
5. Gather any relevant facts and/or stories. People can be persuaded rationally and narratively. Prepare the facts and stories that you think will be most persuasive to your audience.
6. Demonstrate results. One of the easiest ways to get people to believe a new idea will work is to demonstrate how similar ideas have previously worked.
7. Allow your counterparts to save face. Make your follow-up presentation at a time, in a location and with a delivery that allows your counterpart to save face and take idea ownership of the new direction.
8. Collaborate. Ask for their ideas and alternatives and integrate as many of them into your new process as possible.
9. Earn their trust. Consistently show your character and competence. Quickly admit any mistakes you’ve made. Publicly work hard towards achieving the same goals. Give them credit for their actions
10. Follow up. A commitment to change develops over time. The amount of time you dedicate to your people and the process will be a direct reflection of how much they mean to you.
Steve followed this strategy on two fronts. He created a plan of action for Dave, and for his team, and gave himself several months to begin implementing it. Steve knew his team was afraid their efforts would just cause more work, get them less recognition and only reward Dave. He also knew all they really wanted was to demonstrate their expertise, be respected with some autonomy and to free up time they were wasting on unnecessary tasks. Additionally, Steve was well aware that Dave only cared about the results, never took the time to follow-up on the details of the process and was heavily motivated by how other leaders in the community perceived him.
During the second quarter Steve made some executive decisions and promised his team he would fall on Dave’s sword as long as they delivered the necessary results. When his team saw Steve was true to his word they increased their trust in him and became willing to put in extra effort in other areas, which allowed Steve to free up time for them. Simultaneously Steve worked with Joe to set up several meetings for Dave with other high profile business leaders in the city. Joe intentionally chose leaders who would play to Dave’s ego, while sharing lessons on distributive decision making, recognizing employees and developing leaders.
Five months later Steve shut the door in his office and sat down to create his strategy for the following year. He took a moment to reflect back on what he had achieved with his team, how he had influenced Dave and all the work he still had ahead of him with both. He opened his notebook and flipped through the pages looking for anything important he had missed and needed to carry forward. As he flipped past his notes from his first meeting with Joe he did a double take saw where he had scribbled “I can’t do that” in the margin. Steve smiled, exhaled, crossed out his note, replaced it with “I did it” and turned his focus to next year.
Michael Reddington, CFI is an executive resource, the president of InQuasive, Inc. and the creator of the Disciplined Listening Method. He teaches leaders from all industries and specialties how to apply strategic, ethical persuasion techniques in all of their conversations. To learn more contact Michael directly at +1 (704) 256-7116 or firstname.lastname@example.org.