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Change one word to transform leadership team performance

Jigsaw puzzle pieces with word change on grey background

As a leader, from time to time, you are going to face resistance from colleagues when you are trying to bring about change. When this happens, you may feel an impulse to stand in their shoes and ask “What’s in it for me”? You’re seeking to understand, to find a way to respond to your colleagues’ concerns.  But falling into this “empathy trap” can increase frustration and prolong resistance to change. Focussing on individual colleague’s concerns can intensify the sense of loss they are associating with the change.

The good news is that as a leader, with just one word, you can move the conversation in a direction that will lead to engagement, commitment to change,  fulfilment for colleagues and exceptional business results. In this article, I will describe the steps that you can take to turn individual resistance to change into team commitment to high performance.

Turning individual resistance to change into team commitment 

This was a challenge faced by one of my clients, a CEO, who was leading the integration of a global services business following a major acquisition.  He wanted to appoint a senior colleague to a global account management role.  Pre-acquisition this colleague had been a senior general manager running a large region. His skills were now needed to grow this global account which had huge potential. The new role had less direct reports, less budget and many of the people who worked on the account would directly report to other senior managers.

The colleague saw this as a loss of status that carried career risk. He argued there were many reasons the change wouldn’t work including the timing was wrong; developing an account like this had never been done globally; it would require too big an investment, it was too complex and so on…..

His resistance was a major concern to the CEO, not just because there was a business opportunity that needed his leadership but, as the most senior manager of the acquired company, he was a key influencer.

The CEO was frustrated by his colleague’s resistance which was also creating resentment and mistrust amongst other colleagues on the senior leadership team.

In an attempt to find a solution, the CEO followed his instincts to empathise and “standing in his colleagues’ shoes” asked, “what’s in it for me”. He could see how his colleague perceived a potential loss of status, the risk associated with a new venture and the lack of direct control over resources. Yet every attempt he made to reassure him that he would be supported and to persuade the colleague to take on the role, continued to encounter resistance. It was in danger of leading to a prolonged negotiation over personal needs

Changing one word to make the breakthrough

When I was engaged to work with the leadership team, this was one of the first challenges I learned about. My coaching to the CEO was that he only needed to change one word to move towards a solution. So instead of standing in his colleague’s shoes and asking ‘What’s in it for me?” Change one word and ask” What’s in it for us”.

Changing one word in the question shifted the CEO’s focus. It also prompted other questions:

What is in the change for:

  • Our Customers’
  • Our  Employees
  • Our Partners
  • Our Shareholders

and what other changes do we need to make to realise the potential value of bringing together the talents of colleagues from the company they had just acquired? The CEO paused the conversation with the senior colleague. He then brought  the leadership team together and asked them to stand in the shoes of:

  • their customers
  • their colleagues
  • their partners
  • their shareholders

and ask – What are the changes they need to see if we are to realise the potential of this acquisition and what would be in that for them?

And so the leadership team developed a shared understanding of what they needed to do differently to realise the potential of the merged businesses. The new global account role was one of those changes identified. The senior colleague accepted the challenge, initially with some reservations. Now, four years later, he takes great pride in that fact that he has led three-fold revenue growth from that global customer account and is now generating more than $0.5bn annual revenue. Company revenue as a whole has grown 50% over that period.

Summary: Impact on leadership team performance

So, as a business leader, by just changing one word in a question, you can shift your own focus and that of the leadership team to turn conflict into cooperation, turn a colleague’s resistance into team commitment that builds an organisation where employees are engaged, fulfilled and deliver exceptional results.

John Drysdale

John Drysdale

John is a co-founder of Business Momentum. He coaches business leaders and teams to develop organisations where people are engaged, fulfilled and deliver exceptional results. He is supported by a team of coaches and consultants who have a track record of success working with senior leaders and team across a range of sectors.

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