Never work uphill

One of the rules of thumb for change agents is 'never work uphill'. I mentioned this to someone who I was talking with last week who in a general conversation said how upset she was that there was massive change going on in her department, no-one at her level knew what was going on, rumor was rife, and when she'd asked her manager what the story was she'd been told that it was not a discussable topic with people below a certain grade.

She did not know that I had several conversations with the head of her department during the summer. What he wanted to do was change the way the physical space was used in order to accommodate a large team of people (80) coming to work on a long-term project, and to establish a physical and on-line library for shared documents and materials. When I told her she asked why I hadn't been able to do something to make the Department Head's approach more effective.

At the time his plan was to do this without commandeering more space than he had, although this was an option but would incur costs. When I first talked to him he was enthusiastic about the possibilities of encouraging people to work differently, to telework more, to share space, and to give up having their own copies of things when they could access them from a physical and an on-line library.

My suggestions to him included involving all the staff – about 200 – in helping decide how the space should be used, how they would work differently, and what would make a smooth transition to doing this. I volunteered to run some lunchtime sessions to start an engagement and communication process. Following these first few meetings nothing happened from his side to start down this path in terms of dates, or agreement with the outline I sent for the sessions. So then I suggested coming to his all-staff meeting the first week of September to give an overview of the upcoming change and the participation process. He agreed to this, only to cancel the day before, saying they now had too much on the agenda.

At that point I sent him an email saying that alarm bells were ringing for me, and if he continued down the path of changing things without involving the staff he would be likely to have disastrous results. He didn't reply to this. And invoking the rule of 'never work uphill'. I moved on to other things.

So, I was not surprised to hear that things were not going well. Learning more about what was going on I saw a catalogue of failure centered around belief that leaders make the right choices, that engaging staff in decision making is not necessary, and that people will do what leaders tell them to do.

This brought to mind an article I read years ago in the Harvard Business Review Reaching and Changing Frontline Employees, by T. J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin. It's a bit dated now (no mention of social media) but the messages are enduring. In it they say:

Not communicating to employees during major organizational change is the worst mistake a company can make. Consider the conclusions from three important studies on communication during mergers and acquisitions: In periods of high stress and uncertainty, people fill communication voids with rumors; rumors end up attributing the worst possible motives to those in control; and communication lowers employees' stress and anxiety even when the news is bad. In other words, uncertainty is more painful than bad news.

The authors go on to talk about

"the astonishing speed with which rumors spread in large companies. But how? Who schedules the rumor meetings? Without temps and overtime, how do employees find time to pass on the rumor? Who prints the rumors onto overhead transparencies? And where are the trainers providing supervisors with refresher courses in rumor-communication skills?

The truth is there, but we refuse to see it. Corporate videos, publications, and meetings don't move information through companies; they inhibit it. The most effective way to communicate is informally, face-to-face, one-on-one. The problem with rumors is their inaccuracy. That is why face-to-face communication must be grounded in fact and in print. But understand this about rumors: The transmission method is perfect."

So when I walked up to the department and happened to bump into the head I asked him how things were going. His terse response was 'they could be better'. When I suggested that we could discuss taking some remedial action now he said that 'it's all happening this week'.

My choices in this situation? Three things come immediately to mind:

1. Invoke the lesson 'never work uphill'
2. Work with the person I was talking with and see if she can influence from an insider – albeit not a senior management – position
3. Offer to come back in three months and see what everyone has learned from the exercise.

Other suggestions would be welcome.

POST SCRIPT: The day after posting this I heard that the head of department had cancelled this week's scheduled whole department staff meeting.