Monday, July 21, 2014

Help Real Change Agents Help Themselves


I've observed many leaders say they're looking for a change agent. I believe anyone who wants to hire someone to lead the change they want to see in their organization doesn’t really know what they want. The conviction and tenacity needed to lead change requires three influencing factors:
  1. A real vision, based on true passion, of what the organization can accomplish.
  2. Belief in the mission and the value-propositions it represents for all stakeholders.
  3. A sufficient amount of dissatisfaction in the status quo.

I recently worked with a woman who is a real change agent. She had recently let her frustration get the best of her at work. She had been given a disciplinary warning because her actions were perceived as unacceptable. I was asked to coach her because her behaviors in the incident distracted everyone from her message. No one was quite sure how what to do next to resolve the situation. In other words, the company recognized the value she created for them and wanted her to continue to contribute but they didn't really know what to do with her.

I reviewed the facts that had been gathered before I met with her. Then, I listened to her side of the story. When I first told her I believed she was a change agent, she denied it. She shook her head and said, “I just want to do my job.” I believe this denial was based on the repercussions of the incident and she was losing sight of the big picture.

I asked her, “So, what were you trying to accomplish that day?”

“When I see someone doing something I know is not right, I just want to help them understand what they can do differently. How can we ever get better if no one is willing to listen?” I could tell the incident was caused by the frustration that built up over time due to what she perceived as collective indifference toward continuous improvement. I believe her behavior in the incident was caused by her inability to resolve the conflict created by that indifference.

As she spoke I observed her frustration create energy that needed to expend itself through the change in her voice, the tears in her eyes, and her body language.

“OK, so you say you just want to do your job. When I see and hear the most passion from you, it’s related to making things better. So, what do you think your job is?”

I could tell she was caught between two conflicting thought processes: one was telling her to play it safe like she’d been trying to do so the aftermath of the incident would go away; the other was making the connection between what I was saying and the reason why we were talking in the first place. “Let me ask the question in a different way. You are highly skilled at what you do and the company needs those skills. But, do you really believe your job is only performing tasks requiring those skills? Is that really how you believe you will create real and lasting value for this company?”

She couldn't help the smile that appeared on her face despite the tears, “No.”

“Are you a change agent?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Outstanding! Now, let’s focus on how you can do your job in this organization. The truth is they know they need you but they can’t recognize the value-propositions you present them. You need a plan for how you're going to change that.”

By the way, this woman wasn't even in a leadership position but I knew she could drive positive change if she had the right kind of support.


Real change agents are everywhere and they can't be satisfied unless they are helping drive continuous improvement. They are inspired to drive change when they recognize gaps between the value-propositions the organization states it wants to fulfill and current performance. They just can't help themselves. They are compelled. The incremental value their ideas can create for the organization are significant and logical and they believe the only way to communicate the opportunity is to be direct.  The problem is, you're so distracted by how their frustration affects the manner in which they communicate that you can't see the opportunity, you only feel the discomfort their words and actions create for you and the people around you. Your desire to eliminate the discomfort drives you to do something. 

Because it seems easier to silence the wheel that makes the most noise than to change out or re-align the defective parts that make it squeak you miss the real opportunities and sacrifice the improvements that come from incremental change for the illusion of peace you associate with preserving the status quo. Maintaining the status quo in a world that is constantly changing is a recipe for disaster. So, what can you do?

If you want real and lasting success, the key is recognizing real change agents and how to help them manage their frustration as they try to pull people out of their comfort zones.


  • They are typically very skilled.
  • They tend to learn new jobs very quickly.
  • They ask a lot of questions.
  • They initially gain credibility quickly then lose it incrementally over time as they challenge the status quo with more and more colleagues.
  • They are eventually perceived as pushy and abrasive. Others tend to complain about them and will say things like this about them, “He should just stay in his lane and worry about his own job, not about how I’m doing mine,” or “She doesn't have the experience I have. Besides, this is the way I've been doing it for years.”
  • They are often the frustrated ones. They perceive no one else seems to care about the opportunities for improvement. They become impatient with the lack of positive change which drives them to lash out.
  • They don't give up. They keep pushing their ideas up the ladder with the hope that someone with authority will lead the changes necessary to improve performance and the culture. They continue to try to make their point because they believe in their message even when they're getting in trouble for the manner in which they've delivered it.


1. Typically, you will become aware of a change agent who is not effectively working with others in one of two ways: They complain to you about how nobody wants to change or somebody else complains about them. Ask yourself- If I separate their message from the frustrated emotions they express while they're delivering it, do I understand it agree? (I’m asking you to ignore their inappropriate behavior for a moment. We will come back to that)

a. If your answer is yes, go to Step 2.

b. If your answer is no, ask more questions for clarification and repeat Step 1 until one of the following occurs:
  • You understand and agree. Go to Step 2.
  • You can’t understand and agree no matter how hard you try. You may have a change agent whose values do not align with the organization. Go to Step 2.b.

2. Ask yourself- Has this person violated any organizational policies on acceptable behaviors in the workplace during a specific incident because of their frustration?

          a. If you don’t know, you need to investigate further until you come up with a definitive yes or no answer. Gather more facts from people involved in the incident (who, what, when, where, how).
          b. If your answer is yes, you must address the unacceptable behaviors. Follow your organizations disciplinary process then go to Step 3. This is important if you want to help this change agent learn how to be effective without compromising their position. You must give them the opportunity to recognize their greatest opportunity for creating value is to change the way they react to what they perceive to be wrong.

          c. If your answer is no, go to Step 3.

3. It’s important to not steal the change agent’s initiative. If you want to create a continuous improvement culture you must help them become influential with their colleagues. At this point, whether they've displayed unacceptable behaviors or not, their actions have distracted everyone from the value-proposition and their co-workers will be reluctant to work with them if they don't resolve the conflict. If you try to influence that you will only alienate them further. It’s time to help the change agent define what they really want.

          a. Ask them- Which damaged relationship is most important resolve for you to get back on track and work toward the change you want to realize?

          b. Ask them- What behavior have you displayed in past interactions with them that you’d like to change?

          c. Ask them- What exactly does that person do when you bring up improvement opportunities and which creates an emotional reaction in you?

          d. Ask them- How does their reaction make you feel?

          e. Ask them- What reaction would you like to see in the future?

          f. Ask them- How do you want to work with them from now on?

4. Prepare them for a conversation focused on resolving the conflict. Help the change agent craft a message with their target audience by having them fill in the following statements:

______________(Answer to 3.a.), I recognize my behavior was unacceptable when I ______________(Answer to 3.b.). I’d like to apologize and think it’s important we talk about what happened. Are you willing to talk about it? (We will assume the answer from the other party is yes).

When you ___________________(Answer to 3.c.) it makes me feel _________________(Answer to 3.d.). In the future, I’d appreciate it if you could ______________(Answer to 3.e.) so we can _________________.

5. Prepare them on how to manage the conversation by developing strategies for the following scenarios:
          a. Ask them- How will you proceed if the other party indicates they want to work with you in the manner you’ve asked them to?

          b. Ask them- How will you end the conversation without making things worse if they indicate they do not want to work with you in the manner you’ve asked them to?

6. Give them the assignment- Set a date and time when you will meet with the change agent again. Communicate your expectation that they will have the conversation they prepared for in Steps 3 & 4.

7. Reconvene on the agreed upon date and time from Step 5.
          a. Ask them- What was your plan?
          b. Ask them- Did you get the results you needed?
  • If yes, congratulate them on their success! Celebrate! Then, ask them what their next step is. If they need to have a similar conversation with other employees have them repeat Steps 3 through 6 focusing on what worked well and what they can do better as they repeat the process.
  • If no, ask them what they believe the next step is and what they need to do differently to get the results they need. Remember, not to take responsibility for resolving the situation for them.  

Helping real change agents in your organization can set the conditions for huge leaps toward realizing the changes you'd like to see through continuous improvement. Your role as the leader is to define the objectives and provide the resources required to achieve them. The steps listed above are intended to provide you with  a strategy you can use to provide any real change agent with the resources they need to facilitate change while establishing (or rebuilding) working relationships with the people they need to be successful at helping your organization realize your vision.


Tom Eakin
Success Engineer, BoomLife

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Get the Win You Want Most In a Difficult Situation


Giving corrective feedback or telling someone something they don’t want to hear isn't easy and it’s difficult to see how you can get the win you want if you value the relationship with the person you are delivering difficult news to. But, it’s not as painful as it appears when you learn how to watch out for a few signals that indicate you're making it harder than it is. The good news is the signals come from you. The bad news is, the signals come from you and they’re not always easy for you to see. Just remember the people you interact with can see them.


The other day, a friend of mine asked me to help her write up a disciplinary action. There are a few things I know about my friend. For one, she has a powerful aversion for conflict. She wanted help with a few specific sections of the form before she had the difficult discussion with the employee. I was glad to see she was taking the time to prepare and happy to help.

As we worked, I noticed two tendencies which signified my friend was making the process harder on herself than it needed to be:

1.       Each time we made definitive statements about the expectations of the employee going forward, she would verbalize counter-arguments as if she knew what the employee would say in response. For example, as we worked on communicating her expectations for the employee I’d suggest a statement like, “If you would like guidance and support in rebuilding and sustaining professional working relationships with your colleagues who were affected by this incident, please feel free to contact us. Any conversations relating to these efforts will be kept strictly confidential.” As soon as she finished typing the statement she put down her hands, her shoulders sagged, and she said, “She’s not going to believe me, because everybody was talking about this incident.” I sensed she was rationalizing to give herself an excuse to avoid saying what she needed to say because she couldn't craft a message the employee would accept outright. This signal indicated my friend wascompromising her message with logic confounded by her aversion to conflict. There is no way to deliver a difficult message that will be accepted without resistance.

2.       When it was time to communicate the consequence of the employee’s actions in the incident, she would tangent to another topic that appeared to be related, but wasn’t.  For example, I'd ask my friend what she wanted to do and she'd tell me about how she believed the incident negatively affected other employees rather than answer the question directly. I could tell she was evading the question because once she stated the consequence she'd be compelled to follow through and deliver it. Saying things about what you intend to do out loud to other people commits you that way. Her avoidance to clearly state the consequence was a signal that my friend was placing more value on maintaining the status quo in her relationship with the employee than on holding her accountable for her unacceptable behaviors.


Regarding my friend's concern that the message wouldn’t be one hundred percent valid in the employee’s eyes, I asked, “Was everybody talking about the incident because you leaked the information you gathered in your discussions with the people involved? Or, was it because several of the employees you interviewed talked about it with their coworkers even though you'd asked them not to?” 

She indicated the correct answer was the latter. I asked her if she recognized she couldn't control what other people said. Sure, the integrity of the investigation was compromised by some other employees and that was an unfortunate fact. However, that fact didn't compromise my friend’s personal integrity or her ability to make logical decisions going forward. She processed my questions and I watched as she moved her hands back to the keyboard as if prepared to continue.

I steered the conversation back to the part of the exercise she'd been avoiding and asked my friend how she wanted to communicate the consequence to the employee. She gave me two half-answers. “Half of me just wants to tell her she will need to fix the relationships she’s damaged and move on. The other half believes this should be a written warning.”

I replied, “In my opinion, the facts you’ve gathered indicate her behaviors warrant a written warning and she needs to take responsibility for mending the relationships if she truly wants to be a valued and productive member of her team. Tell me why you can't give her both of those messages?”

“Hmmmm, I can, but...”


My friend forgot what win she wanted most when she became distracted by rationalizations driven by her aversion to conflict. I believe my friend cares very deeply about creating a culture where conflict can be resolved. She wants people to be able to negotiate through disagreements and work with each other productively. She wants people to see her as a person who consistently provides them with the support they need to resolve conflicts. She wants the organization to have great teams comprised of good people who know how to work off each other’s strengths. I believe she wants all of those great things.

So, what was holding my friend back from delivering the difficult message that was critical to getting the employee back on track? What was keeping her from making an effective decision on the consequence? Her aversion to conflict drove her to seek the path that would create no friction between her and the employee. In addition to all of the great things she wanted for the organization, my friend also wanted the employee to like what she had to say and in this case the only way to accomplish that was to avoid delivering the message that was needed most. Her avoidance and rationalization were leading her toward the win she didn't really want because it wasn't really a win, it only looked like one.

I asked her, “What do you want more in this situation, to help her understand that she needs to change how she reacts to other employees in order to continue to work here, or, what you think will make her walk away feeling good about you?”

I watched as my friend thought about the question. She sat up a little more straight, “I want her to hear and understand that she needs to change.”

I nodded, “Always remember that every situation represents a value-proposition for everyone involved. In other words, everyone wants to get the win they think they want. Right now, you need to decide what win you want the most. Yes, it’s nice when people are happy with you, it certainly sounds like a win. But do you believe it’s a win if you need to compromise the principles you believe in to get it? What kind of problems will you create by focusing your efforts on making sure she'll like you when she walks away from the conversation? Is that really the win you want?”
She thought about that for a second. 

“I get all that. But, how can upsetting her make things better?”

“Your task is to deliver a message that will help the organization get better. Focus on the message you need her to hear and you'll end up with a win either way. If she accepts the consequences and makes the changes she needs to, her team gets better. If she doesn’t accept the consequences and your expectations, it means her values don’t align with the culture you want. She may decide to leave or she may eventually get terminated if she doesn’t change her behaviors in which case her team still gets better. So, what message do you want her to hear?”

She didn't answer me with spoken words. The sound the keyboard buttons made as her fingers typed told me which win she wanted most. 

Another thing I know about my friend is she does not lack the courage to do what she believes in. Conviction creates the power to overcome fear.  

I could tell she no longer wanted to pursue the impossible task of trying to make sure the employee liked her at the cost of the principles she believed in. She needed to give the employee the opportunity to decide whether she wanted to make the changes necessary to be a valued member of her team. By choosing the win she really wanted, my friend found the will to disrupt the status quo and compel the employee to change how she interacted with her team in positive ways. As I left my friend to her work, I noticed she was sitting up straight in her chair, exuding the kind of confidence that can only come with conviction.


Having difficult conversations is never easy because they force you to change the status quo for yourself and the other person. Following these simple steps can help you make it as easy as it possibly can be:

1.       Prepare- Do this consistently. The worst results I've reaped in difficult conversations always occurred when I wasn't prepared. Always go to Step #2 anytime you find yourself in a difficult situation and don't respond until you have prepared by following all of these steps. You always want to respond as quickly as possible but it is so important to know your response can lead to the win you want. In other words, don't dilly-dally to avoid, but take the time to prepare so you can act with conviction.

2.       Define the Problem- Conflict occurs when two or more parties seek value propositions which are either at odds with each other in principle (values are not aligned as evidenced by words, actions or behaviors) or in situations where there are not enough resources to satisfy everyone’s desires. Think:
  • What value-proposition is at stake for you?
  • For the other party?
3.       Define the value-proposition you seek- Before you enter the fray make sure the battle is worth fighting. Ask yourself, “What result do I really want and willgetting it in the manner I’m planning align with my own values?
  • If the answer to the second part of the question is, “Yes,” then you know you can proceed to Step #4 with conviction.
  • If the answer to the second part of the question is, “No,” then go back to Step #2; keep thinking about the problem, the value-proposition you want and your plan. If you can't ever get to a “Yes,” then ask yourself if you're seeking something you really don't want. Don't make things worse by continuing to Step #4 until you are willing to get what you want without compromising your values. Otherwise, you'll be on a path to doing something you'll regret.
4.       Define the message you need the other party to hear- Write it down! Here are a few options, you determine which method will work best in your situation:
  • Memory- I recommend this option least. Conflicts are stressful. There is a high probability you will not remember exactly what you want to say if you rely only on your memory. Use this option only as a last resort.
  • Bullet Points- Use this option if you feel confident enough to speak clearly while using an outline to guide you through the points you need to make in a stressful conversation. At the very least, you'll have the cues you need to remember each point you need to make.
  • Prepared Statement- Writing out the statement you need the other party to hear can help you think through not only what you want to say but how you can say it most directly and effectively. When you have the time, this is a great way to craft the exact message you want to deliver.
    • Avoiding any particular point of the message?
    • Rationalizing based on how you believe the person will respond?

      These are signals that you may not have true conviction in the value-proposition your efforts have been driving toward. Go back to Step #3. Keep thinking.
5.       Deliver the message- You’re prepared. So say what you mean.
  • Be clear and concise- If you wrote out a statement, the best approach might be to just read it to them. This approach may feel awkward but the main point is to deliver the message, isn't it? I've done this more than once and although I have to admit it always feels strange to read my statement to the other party, the approach has saved me from making things worse each time. The point is to stay on message and avoid adding distracting statements. The biggest mistakes I've made in delivering constructive feedback has been when I've tried to add language to try and make the person feel better or to justify some parts of the message. I learned not to assume what parts of my message they will disagree with or question and to focus on delivering it. I wait for them to respond because only then can I know exactly what part(s) they take issue with.
  • Don't be distracted- It’s difficult not to become distracted from the message you really
    want to deliver while preparing. The previous steps are designed to prevent you from trying to rationalize how you will respond to the things the other parties may say. They probably will take issue with at least one of your points though.

Remember, your purpose is to deliver your message.  Don't let them distract you from it. It’s the win you really want. You need them to hear it but you don't need them to agree with it.

If after you’ve made your points you find they still disagree remember, you will have other opportunities in the future to come to an agreement if you keep the avenues for discussion open. This isn't easy because difficult conversations are stressful and your natural tendency is to end the conversation as quickly as possible. However, it’s important not to stifle the conversation because that will only leave the conflict unresolved. Unresolved conflict doesn't go away, it festers.

Learning to be calm and think clearly in uncomfortable situations is critical. Here are a few options you can use to end the conversation. The key is to acknowledge when the conflict is unresolved and that you intend to return to it.:
  1. If they don't agree with your facts- Say, “There are two sides to every story, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and perception is reality. I'm delivering this message based on the information I've gathered. Since you don't agree with it, I suggest we continue this discussion later after we've both had a chance to check our facts.” Then, end the conversation as concisely as possible and go back to Step #1 so you can continue the conversation with conviction.
  2. If they don't agree with your message because they're not getting the value-proposition they sought or expected- You can say, “I understand if you don't agree with the outcome. It’s important for you to think about whether the direction we're taking is acceptable to you. Only you can decide that. What I need is for you to understand the message I'm delivering to you clearly, do you?” 
    If they say, “Yes,” then go back to Option 1, above.
    If they say, “No,” give them an opportunity to ask questions but don't let them distract you from the message, just listen and try to learn what they specifically disagree with or don't understand to so you can address them directly.

    If they try to distract the conversation from your main points then say, “We can address that issue if needed after we've resolved this one. Can we get back on topic?”

    Remain vigilant of your frustration level.

    If things get too stressful and you're concerned you're going to lose your composure or give in just to relieve the tension, go to option 1, above, as a way to keep the conversation going without compromising your position.
  3. If they understand and agree with you- That means the value-propositions you both seek are aligned. This is the win both of you want most! Continue the conversation. Focus on how you can work together to create a magical mutually beneficial relationship.
These five simple steps provide the framework which will allow you to think and act as 
logically as possible in relation to what you value most and the results you really want when you're forced to deal with a difficult situation. 
Oh, by the way, you'll always be forced to deal with difficult situations. 

Finding Success
Get the win you really want and 
Follow the steps consistently and you'll notice three things will happen:
1.       You will get incrementally better at communicating with others because you will learn how to become less susceptible to the stress created by difficult conversations.

2.       You will need to respond to incrementally fewer conflicts over time because you’ve resolved problems versus merely creating the illusion that you have.

       Teamwork will improve incrementally. The culture will improve incrementally.

Incremental progress is continuous improvement, each step a change from the status quo.


Tom Eakin
Success Engineer, BoomLife

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