Every few years, some new trend comes along in leadership, promising that it will solve all of an organization's problems. Most of these are supported by research or insights, and all come with stories of real companies that were helped by the approach, but every time, as companies across the nation rush to implement the latest leadership strategy, many find that the initiative fails to work.
Their efforts to increase openness, enhance engagement, deepen motivation, craft the perfect mission statement, expand diversity, improve team function, enhance communication, reduce turnover, add mindfulness, or maximize contributions from millennials all end up consigned to the trash heap of failed initiatives. Figuring out how to implement a program or initiative that will really make a difference depends on understanding why so many of them don't.
Why do so many initiatives fail?
It's not because the programs are flawed (necessarily). Here's the thing: employees hate new initiatives. Managers who have supervised failed initiatives know this and often jump to the unflattering conclusions that their employees are difficult and just don't want things to get better. But that's pretty unlikely—who wouldn't want their work life to improve? What's really happening is that leaders are implementing programs without giving any thought to how they will be received by the employees.
Oftentimes, leaders devote all of their energy and attention to figuring out where their employees are going wrong and deciding on the right initiative to fix them. They are convinced that as soon as the employees get the facts, hear the pitch, and see how well the program is put together, they'll fall in line. The problem is that this approach presupposes that the workers are basically objects that are supposed to work yet are broken in some way and that they will automatically be fixed the same way a glitchy laptop improves after a restart.
But real human beings aren't like that at all. They come with poignant pasts, fears, challenges, strengths, weaknesses, disappointments, and triumphs, all of which are significant to the individual and utterly unique. They carry around a host of desires and perspectives that impact their work and other people in complex ways. This glorious messiness is at the center of being human. And it means they are defensive and resistant about being seen and treated as if they are mere objects.
So, when bosses announce, "Look at these numbers! They're awful! Here's a new initiative to improve teamwork," the employees hear, "You guys are bad at teamwork, and I'm going to fix you."
Any new top-down change carries the subtext that up to that point, the employees have been deficient and that only the cleverness of their leaders can save them. Even if it's the greatest program in the world that would truly benefit everyone, programs implemented this way make employees want to resist them, if only to resist the insulting message of the subtext.
Four ways make your next initiative a success
1. Make sure you're not inadvertently insulting your people
You can prevent these knee-jerk reactions against a new program if your people already know that you're not, in fact, thinking of them as being deficient. The only way to do this is to stop thinking of them as deficient. Get to know them a little, look for the good they do, and be determined to find something to admire. This takes a little time, but hey, so does planning an initiative they may ultimately find insulting.
2. Find out the real source of trouble
You can't solve any kind of organizational problem until you understand the root from the point of view of the employees. The only way to know the real source is to talk to people and find out what their biggest frustration or difficulty is. Become familiar with the demands and inconveniences of each job so you can see where there are logjams in processes or problematic people before you start telling others what their problems are.
3. Let employees have a say
People tend to know the inefficient, problematic, or counterproductive obstacles that keep them from doing their jobs well. They just don't enjoy hearing it from other people—especially distant bosses who act superior and distant. The key is to tap into their knowledge without inciting their defensiveness. This is best done by involved leaders who have invested the time and attention to know and appreciate their reports; they can ask directly what employees think the weaknesses are. Email surveys can also work if leaders have laid a groundwork of respect and safety.
4. Take responsibility for the problem you want to fix
Sorry, leaders, but whatever needs to be improved, the blame is on you, not on the employees. They aren't broken objects; they have been responding to the culture and practices you've put in place and to the managers you have given them. The roll-out of a new initiative must include taking responsibility. "We have a new initiative because I/we haven't been doing a good job of teaching you how to coordinate remotely" is an example. It's the truth, and it won't put people's backs up the way "Here's my genius plan to fix you idiots" will.
When initiatives fail, it's not usually the program's fault. Typically, plans fail when leaders are dismissive or ignorant of employees' perspectives and see their workers as objects to be fixed. However, when leaders invest time in trusting their employees, fostering a workplace built on respect and mutual support, and avoiding misguided and insulting roll-outs, the sky is the limit. Businesses and teams can improve, and a willing and inclusive workforce can embrace expensive initiatives.
Kimberly White is a speaker and writer whose work focuses on the fundamentals that underlie behavior in relationships. Her powerful book The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything details the management lessons she learned while doing research in one of America's most maligned industries.
Photo by Vincent Botta