The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

What do you think?

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