Q: As part of my job, I am working to help unify a number of different work groups around some consistent processes. They all have different workplace cultures and have developed their own unique ways to get their work done. How do I help bring them together without forcing the change down their throats?
Lynette, 48, vice president, marketing
A: First, listen.
The quickest path to failure is through pushing an agenda without understanding the current state. Follow the direction of savvy politicians and leaders, setting up “listening sessions.” In these small group meetings, ask people for their thoughts about their organizational culture, their approach to change, their point of view on their current process, and other related topics. You should do very little talking. Ask clarifying questions and probe to get at deeper dynamics, and avoid challenging them or debating their points. It can be hard to stay neutral, especially if you have a strong perspective yourself. But arguing will come off as defensive and you’ll appear insincere in asking for their insights.
After you have spoken with all groups, sift through your notes and look for themes. Notice preferences about communication and new process implementation, and think about ways the teams are both similar and different in terms of culture.
Move next toward a greater unity. One powerful step would be to have a combined meeting across teams where you report back on what you’ve learned. The two-way street will build trust in you and your intentions. Then when you hit bumps along the way, you will be more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Note: it would be ideal to do this in person, but if your work teams are dispersed, at least set up a WebEx.
With this foundational work in place, you can now focus more directly on getting the new processes in place. Establish a work team with knowledgeable representation from each group. In this type of work, titles and seniority are not key; in fact, having management on this committee may not be as useful, as they will not really know the ins and outs of the current process.
Taking a collaborative approach, ask this group to develop a recommendation for adopting the new processes. To the extent possible, give them latitude to suggest changes in the proposed new approaches. This will enhance their sense of ownership and also yield a better-designed process thanks to their expertise.
You may find, after learning more, that you no longer are sold on all of the aspects of the new approach. In that case, escalate to the people advocating this in order to get some modifications before rolling it out.
It’s also important to make it clear that adopting the new processes isn’t optional. If, you encounter resistance even after the inclusive approach outlined above, clarify concerns, address if possible, but also reinforce your expectations for adoption. And watch out for passive resistance; this is one of a bureaucracy’s most powerful ways to maintain the status quo.
Most often, if you explain your reasons, listen to concerns, and let people have input, people will be on board. And, you will have strengthened the bonds within your organization.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.