Tag Archives: leadership

Nurturing the leader in all of us.

Nurturing the leader in all of us
Leadership qualities can exist in all employees.

My 15-year-old daughter, Courtney, recently participated along with 130 other girls in the Junior Teen division of the National American Miss Pageant for the state of Missouri.  She has competed in pageants before, and despite some of my early reservations about her participation, I’ve seen some pretty special things come from her experience in those events.

This particular pageant system judges girls in four main areas: personal introductions about their background and future aspirations on stage in front of a large audience; one-on-one interviews with six judges; community service; and formal wear.

The audience doesn’t get to see the individual interviews, so we were eager to hear what the judges asked Courtney and how she responded.  Interestingly, one of her answers went right to the heart of a core concept that relates to employee engagement.

The need to lead for everyone.
Here’s what the judge asked: “If you could be principal (CEO in kids’ parlance) for one day in your school, what one thing would you change?”  I’ve always seen Courtney as a thoughtful person, but after all, she is 15, so I expected something along the lines of boosting school spirit, reducing homework, or improving the quality of the food in the cafeteria.  Instead, she responded with an answer that many organizations fail to appreciate when it comes to what is commonly called “empowerment.”

She told the judge she would create more leadership opportunities for all the students.  She went on to explain that she’s had the chance to serve as a student ambassador for the school, and it’s helped her grow in several ways.  She added that she believes every student should have an opportunity to lead in some way in their school or their community.  That’s because, she said, they’re all heading for college or somewhere else in “the real world,” and they need that kind of experience to succeed.  It would also help them be more actively engaged in their school.  She went on to give examples of how she would do that with multiple councils and students rotating in leadership roles.  Bottom line, everyone would have a chance to lead in some way.

The leadership-engagement connection.
Not surprisingly, my first reaction was one of pride and surprise at her insight.  Then after I thought about it, I asked myself a question.  Why is it, I wondered, that most organizations don’t grasp how vital it is to see and support every employee as a leader – especially if we want them tuned in, turned on and taking the initiative to go the extra mile to make their organizations the best they can be?

Perhaps it’s the high-sounding meanings we typically associate with the word “leadership” … or it’s our inability to devise ways that for employees to take the lead when they can.  Maybe we just don’t provide sufficient encouragement for people to feel okay about making the shift from following to leading.

Whatever the reason, shared leadership and engagement go hand-in-hand. Organizations that fail to grasp that notion will continue to be stuck in a paradigm that limits the potential for the leader in everyone to blossom and benefit their organizations – and themselves.

Oh … in case you’re wondering, Courtney won the crown (see pics below) – and we’ll be heading to California for the national pageant over Thanksgiving. I don’t know what kinds of questions the judges will throw at her this time, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be ready for whatever comes her way.





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What do you think?  Share your comments and ideas below.

Ownership is more than a feeling.


When employees feel a part of the success, business thrives
When employees feel a part of the success, business thrives.

One of our clients recently had a bad experience at a hotel where they were holding a management meeting.  To make matters worse, the meeting had been planned by the president of the company, and he was leading it himself.  The next day he wrote a “strongly worded” letter to the local general manager of the facility, which is part of a well-known chain.  He outlined the transgressions in detail and told the manager that the company would not be doing business with them in the future.

You can draw different lessons and conclusions from that story. 
Some might say that the employees just didn’t care, and they should be reprimanded or even fired.  I tend to be of the opinion that crap rolls downhill.  I’ll wager that if guests and clients at that hotel are being treated with disregard and lack of respect, that’s what employees are experiencing all along the chain of command from the top down.

When people get past the usual finger-pointing and blame-pinning for problems like that, they sometimes step back and realize it’s not an isolated incident.  Then management says it’s time to “change the culture.”  Before long, they spout the next management bromide about needing to “create an ownership mentality among employees.”

Truth is, you either own something or you don’t.
It’s not a state of mind, and it has nothing to do with feelings.  Owners have a unique stake in the outcome of a business.  The more money the business makes, the more they get to put into the bank.  On the flipside, when times get tough, they’re the ones who take it in the chops. It’s also up to them to take responsibility for getting the business back on track.

That’s not the typical employee compact.  Some companies have backed up their “ownership” expectations by creating profit sharing or gain sharing programs for employees that go down to the front line.  But it’s still not the same as being an owner.  As a practical matter, it’s not always feasible to build employee compensation around a true ownership model.  More to the point, though, programs like that aren’t needed in order to get the performance and behavior that actual owners want from employees.

It’s more an issue of respect and responsibility.
The hotel industry is notorious for poor employee treatment and high turnover.  A notable exception is Baldrige Award winner, The Ritz-Carlton, whose legendary motto about employees is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”  That statement is backed up by the company’s remarkable policy that permits every employee to spend up to $2,000 without approval from their supervisor to make any single guest satisfied.  That’s not exactly the same as ownership, but it’s a strong sign of the trust and responsibility that management places in the company’s employees – and their outstanding reputation proves it works.

Still, there is something special about actually being an owner, and some companies operate with employee-owned models that have remarkable impact when done right.  A story ran on ABC a few months ago (see video below) about a business owner who was retiring and decided to give the company to his employees instead of selling it.  Why?  He said it was because he tried to make all of his business decisions based on what was good for employees – not what was going to make him the most money.  Of course, that’s indeed what made him money because it turned out to be a place where employees loved to work – and customers loved doing business.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

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A lesson for the ages.


Synergies result when teams work together
Synergies result when teams work together.

On April 1, a remarkable story in automotive history will come to an end. Well, not the story itself – it’s too good – but the 26-year-old “experiment” that created it will be a thing of the past.

It all began in 1984, when General Motors and Toyota decided to scratch one another’s proverbial backs with a joint venture called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). The primary motivation for Toyota was to get a foothold for manufacturing automobiles in the U.S. – mainly to stem the public outcry over U.S. auto jobs going to Japan. As for GM, they wanted to learn how to make high-quality small cars that were profitable – which the Japanese proved they could do. As a bonus, GM would also learn how to apply Toyota techniques in other plants throughout their operations.

From Worst to First
Most companies taking on that kind of venture would try it in a plant where they had a strong foundation to build on. Instead, they picked the worst plant in the GM system – in Fremont, California. It was so bad that GM had to shut it down completely two years earlier. Relations between labor and management were incessantly contentious and hostile. Some say they spent more time filing and fighting grievances than making automobiles. What’s more, the product quality was laughable. Cars wound up with the wrong bumpers, steering wheels missing, scratches and dents everywhere. Then they had another crew at the end of the line to repair all the defects.

So when NUMMI was announced, few people thought it would succeed. Not only did they reopen the problem plant – they hired back the same people, believing as Deming always said, problems aren’t about the people, but the system. Before they started operating, though, a sizeable contingent of workers went to Japan to learn the legendary “Toyota way,” working side-by-side with their Japanese “brothers.” It was a landmark event that transformed people’s lives.

You can learn about the details from many sources, including a recent story that ran on National Public Radio.  But at the end of their time together in Japan, a lot of grizzled, hard-bitten workers were literally in tears during the celebration they held before heading back to launch the Fremont operation. They had been given something few of them had known before – a sense of pride and purpose – and the impact on employee engagement proved to be profound.

Marketing is More about What You Do than What You Say
When production started, results were meteoric. Almost immediately, quality and productivity reached levels that paralleled other Toyota plants. Everyone noticed … many cheered … but for reasons that are hard to believe yet easy to understand, little changed for many years elsewhere at the U.S. automaker – despite considerable effort from numerous people within GM. By the time quality became the rule rather than the exception throughout the company a few years ago, it was too late. Even aggressive marketing efforts that touted improved quality initially failed to convince potential customers – too many years of exaggerated claims and poor performance.  Then just when GM started to recover, the economy collapsed, and they had to ask for bailout money to stay afloat.

Fremont is shutting down this week for two main reasons: GM pulled out of the venture in 2009, and Toyota decided it can handle U.S. production in other plants across the country. Although many are sad to see the plant close, its legacy continues. Perhaps the simplest and biggest lesson from NUMMI is that employee engagement and cooperative systems aren’t just nice things to have. They’re the cornerstone of business success – and the most compelling force for effective marketing a company can pursue.

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Focusing on results can lead to poor performance.


Remember to recognize strong performance
Remember to recognize strong performance.

I want to share another insight from my late friend and mentor, David Berlo.  He always emphasized the distinction between results and performance.  Results are the outcomes you produce, and performance is how you get there, he said.  From there, he asserted that being singularly results-driven in what you measure and reward eventually leads to the deterioration of both performance AND results.  Here’s why.

Outcomes vs. Inputs

First, we all know that people tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced in some meaningful way.  Likewise, people tend NOT to repeat behaviors for which they receive negative response.  Next, it’s important to realize that no one has direct control over outcomes (results) – unless the game is fixed or there’s an unfair advantage.  People can only control inputs (performance).

Now, if bad performance always led to bad results, and good performance always led to good results, it wouldn’t matter which one you rewarded – results or performance. But that’s not always how things work out.  Sometimes you don’t get good results even when you give your best effort – other variables can come into play.  Other times, just the opposite is true.  You can give a marginal effort and come out smelling like a rose.

That’s not how things usually happen, but look at what you get when they do.  If you fail to reward people for good performance because they had bad results, you discourage them from repeating the good behavior.  If you reward them for good results in spite of poor performance, you reinforce poor performance in the future.  The cumulative effect over time is inevitable.  Every time you focus on results in a way that either reinforces poor performance or discourages good performance, you also take a step backwards with long-term results.

Performance is the bottom line.

Of course, you have to add up the numbers on the bottom line eventually.  But even if winning in the world of business means producing results, lasting success still requires focusing on the drivers of those results, and rewarding effective execution – regardless of the outcomes in the short run.  Berlo summed it up this way: “Winning is the name of the game, but performance is the bottom line.”  Clearly, if effective execution isn’t producing the desired long-term results, you need to figure out where the disconnect is.  But it serves no purpose to penalize people for poor outcomes if they’re doing the right things in the right way. If that happens, you need to fix the systems, not the people.

So what does that mean for us in the people professions?  For HR people, it’s pretty obvious.  Some compensation and bonus programs are notorious for focusing solely on immediate, bottom line results without regard to how they’re produced – often leading to short-term “success” with negative long-term consequences. Those programs have to encourage performance that looks at the long haul. For communications people, we need to look at where the bulk of the ongoing organizational dialogue is focused.  Are we communicating effectively about the “steps to success” – or is everything employees read and hear about focused on the end game?  If it’s results we’re after, we’d better be talking a lot more about what it takes to produce them – because in the end, it’s how you get there that counts.

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It’s not about the money.

Remember the movie, Jerry McGuire, and the classic line, “Show me the money?”  That may have been a big motivator for Cuba Gooding’s character, but like I’ve said before in this column, financial incentives are not the main motivators when it comes to employee engagement.  If you doubt that premise, check out a presentation made at this year’s renowned TED Conference by Dan Pink – a leading expert in the science of human motivation.  It’s 18 minutes long, and it’s worth every second.

Using research and humor, Pink makes a compelling case for the premise that financial incentives usually produce the opposite result you’d expect on engagement and performance.  He starts with research dating back 60 years from an experiment created by Karl Duncker called “the candle problem.”  Basically, people are challenged with figuring out how to attach a candle to the wall in way that would prevent wax from dripping on the table.  Duncker found that most people struggled due to what he called functional fixedness – a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”  For example, if you need a paperweight, but you only have a hammer, you’ll have a hard time seeing it as a tool to hold down paper.  Most people eventually figure it out, but it takes them a while to get it.

People aren’t always striving for the “prize.”
Years later, another researcher, Sam Gluxberg, decided to see how a monetary incentive would affect people’s performance on the candle problem.  He told one group if they were among the fastest 25%, they would get $5.00.  If they were the fastest in the entire group, they would receive $20.00.  So naturally the people offered the incentives completed it faster, right?  Wrong!  In fact, they took an average of 3 1/2 minutes LONGER than those who were simply asked to perform the task as fast as possible, explaining simply that their results would be compared with the test standard.

As Pink points out, though, what these studies prove and what organizations do in response to that information are two different things.  After decades of evidence from scientific studies like these, guess what?  The main technique that’s used to boost performance today is still the usual array of bonuses and other financial incentives.

If money isn’t the answer, what is?
Pink says that intrinsic motivation will outstrip extrinsic motivation every time when it comes to boosting employee engagement.  And the three main intrinsic motivators he’s identified are:

  • Autonomy – people want to have some sense of independence and control over their work
  • Mastery – they are motivated by opportunities to improve and excel
  • Purpose – they are driven by what matters to them deeply and personally

Still don’t believe it?  Check out Pink’s video – and then try your own experiment.  Be prepared, though.  You may have to change the way you think – or keep believing that extrinsic motivators are the keys to engagement, and hoping you’ll get lucky enough to beat the odds.

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Trust me on this.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that one of the surest ways to raise suspicion about someone’s motives is for the person to say, “Trust me on this?”  That’s certainly true when it comes to employees and customers.

In the workplace, few challenges have obsessed and perplexed the business world more than the issue of employee trust.  The reason is obvious.  With it, virtually any obstacle can be overcome in an organization.  Without it, every day is filled with uncertainty and anxiety, no matter what else the organization does right.

In the marketplace, few things are treasured more passionately than loyal customers – those people who come back time and again, and even refer new customers to enjoy the same experience.

When you get them both right, it’s business paradise.  The crucial thing to understand is that the two go hand-in-hand.  Without employee trust, customer trust suffers, as well.

Management Credibility Factors
One reason organizations fail to foster a culture of trust is because they focus mainly on interpersonal factors.  They’re important, to be sure, and here are key behaviors that managers have to exhibit to gain employee trust:

  • Caring – Genuine concern about employee wellbeing is where it has to start.
  • Honesty and Openness – Dance around the truth or hide important information, and people tune out and turn away.
  • Responsiveness – Listening and taking action on what you hear tells people you’re sincere.
  • Competence – If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s hard to win a following.
  • Reliability – Can people count on you to do what you say
  • Apology – If you can admit mistakes and apologize sincerely, trust goes way up.

In a recent article I wrote for Communication World called “Cracking the Culture Code,” the communication VPs for Southwest Airlines and Enterprise Rent-A-Car talk about how their companies observe those behaviors in their extraordinarily successful cultures.

People-First Systems
But…that’s only half of the equation.  You also have to design the systems, policies, and processes in a way that tells employees unequivocally that they are trusted.  We call those People-First Systems, and they fall into five main categories:

  • Measurement
  • Rewards and recognition
  • Communication
  • Learning and development
  • Continuous improvement

Of course, many organizations have some type of mechanism in place for all of those areas.  But do they really demonstrate to employees that they are trusted?  Do they truly reinforce the oft-heard mantra that people are our most important asset?  Fact is, systems in most organizations are designed to protect against the miniscule number of irresponsible people, and those constraints wind up stifling the vast majority of employees you can count on like clockwork.

Bottom line, you can’t have performance excellence without sincere trust and belief in people.  If you have doubts about the merits of that philosophy, consider the wisdom of renowned statesman, Henry Stimson, who said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

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Change your cascade to a fountain.

A metaphor can be a wonderful thing.  It can also steer people down the wrong path.  Take the familiar term often used for disseminating information throughout an organization – the cascade.  Frequent readers of Inside Out know how fervent I am about avoiding the trap of believing that you’re communicating when all you’re really doing is sending out data and messages to an “audience.”  As I’m often fond of saying, that may be the best you can do sometimes, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s communication.  I have a stock reply for people who bemoan that they need more “two-way communication” in their organization – Seriously, what other kind is there?

Getting Stuck in a Downflow
The problem with the cascade as a metaphor for communication is that information only goes one way – top down.  Sometimes, organizations try to build in processes to help ensure that the people responsible for cascading the information to the ranks below actually do what’s expected of them.  But it’s rare to see any real accountability built into the system for doing it right.  What’s more, people are seldom given the opportunity to engage in a genuine conversation about the information they’re receiving.  The typical drill is more like “hear this and do that.”  On top of that, you rarely see a process to ensure that the questions and comments that come up at the bottom of the cascade find their way back up to the originators of the information.

Cascading Down the Drain
Part of the reason for this flawed approach to communication is that people take the cascade metaphor too literally.  The emphasis is on making sure that messages get from the top to the bottom of the organization – like a cascading waterfall.  That’s because they’re more focused on the process than the outcome.  Bottom line, if you don’t have some way of generating feedback with the same rigor you devote to sending out a “message,” it’s like information down the drain.

Creating a Fountain of Feedback
A better metaphor for the communication process – one that captures the interactive quality of how communication is supposed to work – is a fountain.  Think of it as a cascade with feedback.  That’s essentially what a fountain does – water flows around and around from top to bottom and back up again in a continuous loop.

The fountain also works better to illustrate the growing awareness that the main function of organizational communication should not be to create messages to be sent to audiences, but rather to facilitate conversations among partners and stakeholders.  What’s more, the interactive nature of a fountain approach to communication also captures the growing demand for transparency and authenticity in the workplace.  It’s a vivid reminder of the Marshall McLuhan quote I’ve cited before in Inside Out – “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”  Next time you’re tempted to use the term cascade, ask yourself if a fountain might be a better reflection of the principles and practices you want to embody in your organization’s approach to communication.

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The customer comes second – sort of.

Organizations often try to claim they’re “different” as a convenient excuse for dismissing new ways of doing things. It’s the old, familiar “That won’t work here because …” syndrome. True, every organization is distinct to some extent. Still, virtually all organizations have some basic things in common, and those commonalities make a compelling case for the importance of aligning employee engagement with marketing communication.

For starters, they all want to be successful.
No dispute there. They also all have customers. Call them consumers or taxpayers, students or patients, passengers or clients, patrons or donors … or whatever you want. In the end, their satisfaction largely dictates an organization’s destiny.

All organizations also have employees.Call them associates or co-workers or partners or colleagues … or whatever you want. In the end, their sense of trust and happiness in the workplace determines how they relate to customers – and how satisfied those customers will be.

Connect the dots, and the picture is clear.
Making employee well-being a top strategic priority is more than a nice thing to do. It’s just good business. That’s the central theme of a highly touted book that came out several years ago entitled The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.

The principal author is Hal Rosenbluth, the fourth-generation head of Rosenbluth International, a family-owned corporate travel agency that grew in annual revenues from $20 million to more than $6 billion in a span of 25 years under his leadership. When he joined the business right out of college, he noticed that they put a lot of emphasis on making customers happy, but virtually none on the employees who served them. That didn’t make sense to Rosenbluth, and the disconnect showed on the unhappy faces and performance of disgruntled employees. So he set out to shift the company’s focus first and foremost on the attraction, retention and development of outstanding people.

Realizing that’s counterintuitive for many organizations, Rosenbluth explains, “Companies are only fooling themselves when they believe that ‘The Customer Comes First’ … Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.” With industry-leading customer satisfaction rates of over 99%, how can you argue with him?

A Secret Weapon
Rosenbluth is also emphatic about employee development being a vital part of the success formula. While attracting good people, listening to their ideas and treating them respectfully are important, that’s only part of the equation. “Perpetual training is a secret weapon, because the growth of a company is really just the aggregate of the growth of its people.” What’s more, he says, “Broad-based programs that are philosophical in nature are as important as technical training.”

It all adds up to a simple yet significant phrase from the book, which serves as a poetic and memorable motto: “People who feel cared for will care more.”

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An engaging recipe for planning

We’ve all heard the old adage that “crap” rolls downhill. Truth is, most things go that direction in some organizations – especially when it comes to developing corporate plans. You know the drill. Managers go away and huddle in their cozy planning cocoons. They ponder lofty notions like values, vision and mission. They create goals and objectives and strategies – maybe even some high-priority tactics. Then they pass it down like tablets from the mountaintop with the mandate to go forth and implement.

Cultivate an Appetite for Planning
Fortunately, managers increasingly are starting to “get it.” They’re realizing that when they “cook” the plans before employees have a chance to have a say in what should be on the “menu” and how the “meal” should be prepared, it’s likely to leave a bad “taste” in people’s mouths. Taking the culinary metaphor a bit further, put yourself in their position. If you only had one restaurant in town (your employer), and the only thing you could eat was what the chef (senior management) put in front of you, how satisfying would that be? More to the point, how “engaged” would you be in the whole dining experience, and what’s the likelihood you’d recommend the place to other customers?

Add Engagement to Taste
Of course, there’s also the bromide that warns of having too many cooks in the kitchen. So what’s the answer? How can you engage employees in organizational planning, and still maintain effective control of the process? Admittedly, the larger the organization, the bigger the challenge. The good news is you don’t have to involve everyone, and it doesn’t have to be a complicated undertaking. The methods depend somewhat on what kind of plan you’re creating, but here are some guidelines for getting employees engaged in virtually any type of planning:

1. Start by thinking of employees as participants to engage at the beginning of the process instead of workers to direct at the end.
2. Involve groups of representative employees that comprise all the “realities” of the overall organization.
3. Alternate small group discussions with large group review and evaluation.
4. Foster conversations and formative dialogue rather than “dueling monologues.”
5. Employ a broadly representative steering committee to consolidate central questions, concerns, obstacles and recommended action items that senior managers can use in the final planning work.

Finish with Aligned Execution
That’s just the first phase, though. Fact is, far more strategies suffer from poor execution than insular planning. After the plan is completed, it’s important to engage ALL employees in conversations about where the company is heading with the plan…how it’s going to reach its goals…what each person’s roles and responsibilities are…and how they can contribute. Bottom-line, if you want what’s being said and done outside the organization aligned with what’s being said and done inside, employees have to be engaged in planning from start to finish, not just carrying out orders at the end.

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Avoiding the persuasion trap.

Few communication goals are more alluring than trying to persuade (a.k.a seduce) people to embrace new ideas and behaviors. It’s one reason organizations continue communicating with employees as an audience to be directed with messages instead of a community to be engaged through conversation.

Not “Outside-In”
But it’s a trap. As with other forms of “seduction,” people usually see through it…and often resent it. That’s especially true if they get a whiff of being manipulated by the well-known “trust-me-this-is-going-to-be-good-for-you-even-if-it-doesn’t-look-like-it” sell-job. What’s more, even if they DON’T object to the message, that kind of “outside-in” approach to communication seldom creates a sustainable sense of responsibility and ownership among employees. Instead, it comes off like a pep rally that pumps people up just long enought to cheer for the next game.

Insights from two thought-provoking communication specialists illustrate the hazards of the persuasion trap – and how to avoid it.

Let Employees Persuade Themselves

In 7 Steps to Becoming Invaluable, an interactive development program, Dale Furtwengler identifies counterintuitive thinking as a key to effective leadership communication. One way to develop that capability is to avoid the “myth of persuasion.” He asserts that people rarely can be persuaded to believe or do anything they aren’t already inclined to believe and do. “The best we can do,” says Furtwengler, “is to shine the light on new information, allow others to process it, validate their conclusions with their own experiences and persuade themselves.”

Perhaps even more disconcerting for would-be persuaders, studies show that even if it appears people have been persuaded to change, they often haven’t – and their behavior will show it. As one old saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

“Normal” Communication Won’t Work

So does that mean we should stop trying to reach employees in an effort to foster change? Hardly. In his book, The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning offers an approach that, once again, is somewhat counterintuitive. He describes the “familiar trinity of steps” in communication as:

1) defining the problem,

2) analyzing the options and

3) recommending solutions.

It’s the “normal” way of communicating that’s been part of the Western intellectual tradition since the ancient Greeks. “But if you’re trying to get human beings to change what they are doing and act in some fundamentally new way with sustained energy and enthusiasm, it has two serious problems,” says Denning. “One, it doesn’t work. And two, it often makes the situation worse.”

Stories of Engagement
Denning provides another three-step model for engaging employees in change:

1) Get people’s attention – with captivating, authentic stories acknowledging current challenges and negative conditions

2) Stimulate desire for change – with positive stories of possibility and hope that move people to action

3) Reinforce the desire for change – with reasons told through neutral stories that explain what, when, how and why

Beware of changing the order, though. Interestingly, Denning’s experience shows if you move it around, it’s likely to backfire. So give it a go, and see how well you connect with people.

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