Being a Change Agent

Where organizational change begins.

Traditional organizational development is based on the theory that organizations are systems. Therefore, to change an organization, you analyze what’s going wrong in the system and recommend appropriate changes to restore the system to health and balance. Edgar Schein and Peter Senge love this approach.

I’ve always thought that the theory was bogus. In one sense, organizations are systems—or at least you can choose to look it them that way. Sometimes that’s helpful, like when you’re process mapping or trying to figure out why your compensation system is accidentally rewarding the wrong things. As a temporary problem-solving tool, looking at an organization as a system is useful when applied to processes.

In traditional systems-thinking OD, the role of change agent is fix-it person. That approach may change the system but it never changes the people. I’ve never had an experience with a fix-it person that I found personally transformational, whether it’s with the car repair tech or a plumber. They change the oil or they fix the leaky pipes, and while that removes a source of anxiety for me, it doesn’t change me in the least. So why would we think that a fix-it person approach could transform an organization?

The problem with the systems approach is that organizations are full of those inconveniences we call human beings, and you can’t really change a culture by simply perfecting its systems, practices, processes and procedures. You have to change the human beings—or, more accurately, you have to get the human beings in the organization to want to change themselves.

Alternative OD takes a completely different view that I have found to be far more effective because it allows the change agent to appeal to the higher level needs in people rather than the lower level needs associated with organizational processes. Most people go into an organization with the need to be effective, to demonstrate competence, to feel like their work matters. Focusing on organizational process and bureaucracy may be superficially helpful but it doesn’t come close to satisfying the needs of most, so the change agent winds up fixing things and wondering why the people are still the same. The reason is that by looking at an organization through a systems lens, you essentially devalue the people: they’re just system components.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel my destiny is to be a component.

Alternative OD starts from a completely different perspective: it believes that all organizational change starts with the self, not the system:

We can never forget that in trying to change an organization, we are acting from the self. We therefore need to be willing to engage the self in self-exploration because it is fundamental to acquiring the self-reflexive insight that is a prerequisite to the development of a more viable organization.

Organizations are human creations. We lose sight of that by focusing on structures, on job descriptions, on process, on rules. You can change all of those aspects of an organization and nothing really changes at the core. That is why transformational change begins with self: it is the only authentic source for change.

It is therefore important that we not only understand the social order but the person, and we cannot understand the person without self-understanding. Only through these understandings can we hope to make changes to organizations and improve collective effectiveness. We need to call into question our understanding of organizations and provide a reflexive critique of meaning of the relationship between the person and the social reality from which our experience of organizations emerges.

Even if you’re a traditional systems-thinking OD practitioner, this approach elevates your role to something far more important than handyman or handy-woman. If you’re authentic, you’re honest; if you’re honest with self and others, you have no hidden agenda; and you can begin to engage people in meaningful dialogue that just might get them to talk about the thing they’re trying to protect—the thing that serves as their primary reason for resisting change.

It also helps you avoid the ethical trap that ensnares most change agents: working on something you know isn’t really going to change things but might make things a little better and allow you to pay your bills. If you truly work on self-awareness and authenticity, you’ll be much more likely to make an honest assessment of the desire of the people in the organization to engage in a real change effort, and rather than waste your time, energy and spirit with people who don’t want to change, you’ll have the confidence to move on to something more fulfilling and meaningful.

Quote source: Notes for upcoming book on organizational development.

How to Breathe Life into Employee Engagement Surveys, Part 2


Once your organization has gathered the feedback from the employee engagement survey, it’s time to focus on the critical components that ultimately determine the success or failure of the process: analyzing the survey results and following up with action plans. Together skillful analysis and targeted actions is what breathes life into the survey process.

Analyzing Engagement Survey Data

Simply stated, the goal of analyzing the survey data is to use the information to discover trends, truths and insights that are revealed through the employee feedback. In other words, the numbers will tell a story and it is the role of those involved in analyzing the results to find the story behind the numbers. A skilled interpreter will use their intuition and curiosity as well as sharp analytical skills to uncover the truth in the data and hidden opportunities. Here are a few tips that will help get you started.

1.         Whether you’re looking at total organizational results or the results of a specific group or department, you want to look at the data on three levels: the overall results, the broad categories (benefits, satisfaction with supervisor) and each individual question.

2.         If you have multiple department-level reports, it is helpful to compare and contrast them.

3.         Don’t rush the analysis. Allow yourself time to ruminate on the information.  Go back to the original goals of the survey and see how you fared. Look at the data from the perspective of your personal experience of the organization for results that don’t fit that perspective. If something doesn’t make sense look for the pattern that brings it into focus even if it means looking through a different lens.

The challenges of analysis can be demonstrated through an experience I had while working as the HR leader for a global, geographically-dispersed business team. During our first year we had great results—or so we thought at first. The engagement scores had improved from the previous year and were generally higher than the overall organization, and in most cases higher than the external benchmarks. The reports also indicated that most of the functional areas and the business leaders had above-average overall engagement scores. However, when I looked at the results from a geographical perspective, there were wide swings in satisfaction. I then conducted an analysis of my business team based on physical location rather than reporting structure. Boy, did the picture change! Once I turned the data around it became clear that employees felt less and less satisfied in the quality and quantity of communication they received and the resources available to them the further they worked from the corporate office. People in the US who were located in smaller or home offices away from corporate had lower engagement responses. The folks in Europe and APAC also had lower scores that followed the same declining trend when their physical location moved further from a “central office.” The light bulb went on: if we were going to create an effective global business we had to improve our communication and processes for employees who worked outside of the corporate office. This insight turned out to be low hanging fruit and we were able to implement meaningful action to address the issues in less than one year. We just had to uncover the need.

Action-Planning and Follow-up

Ultimately, the success and employee trust in the engagement survey process will be evaluated by the actions taken by top leadership. Note that I did not say by the “action plans, “ because the plans are useless if they are not translated into sustainable, meaningful actions. The golden rule for action planning is: “You must have an unwavering commitment from the top leadership down to meet your commitments.” Some experts are using the term impact planning instead of action planning, a change we wholeheartedly embrace.  We believe this slight change of reference puts the focus on the fact that the actions must translate into meaningful results.

The importance of the follow-up cannot be stated strongly enough, as shown in a Gallup study on employee engagement surveys. In the study they measured responses to the statement, “Action Plans from my last survey have had a positive impact on my workplace.” Companies who had a score in the top quartile reported an overall increase in engagement of 10% over the previous year. Conversely, companies who scored in the lowest quartile had a 3% decrease in overall engagement and no doubt experienced negative knock-on effects.

In addition to the “golden rule” here are a few tips on how to turn action planning into impact planning.

1.         Keep it simple, focused and committed. Identify the top 3-5 items to which the organization will commit and execute on them, flawlessly. Don’t commit to making a long list of changes. Evaluate what the organization can do and is willing to do.

2.         Get clarification on any feedback you don’t understand. For example, if the organization scored poorly in the area of communication, ensure that you understand exactly where people perceive the communication gaps and focus your action on closing those gaps.

3.         Designate an owner for each action item. Ensure the person has sufficient authority and resources to handle the task to ensure full accountability.  It may also be beneficial to create an employee team to work on the task. Consider adding performance and participation on the team to the goals for all team members.

4.         Once you have communicated the action plans, be sure to track the progress made and provide timely and periodic updates to the larger organization. Celebrate milestones whenever possible.

5.         Ensure that the actions you take link to business priorities and are stated as measurable goals. Remember: the goal of an engagement survey is not just to get better score next time! The actions you take should have clear objective, metrics to measure success and tie to the organization’s business in a meaningful way.


How to Breathe Life into Employee Engagement Surveys, Part 1

Customer Service-Smile-Headset

I must confess that when employee engagement surveys started to become popular, I was skeptical about their value. I chalked them up as another passing fad that created lots of sizzle, but little substance.

As luck would have it, I joined an organization just as they were launching their annual survey process and I had the responsibility to lead the process for my business units. Since I was new to the company and this would be one of my debut projects, I had to replace my skepticism with a determination to ensure that the survey process contributed high value and high impact for my client leaders and their teams.

It worked! I am now convinced that employee engagement surveys can be an excellent tool to gather relevant data about how employees feel about their organizations. ­­But the potency of the process is not in gathering the information or even understanding the results—the heart of the process is translating the information into meaningful action. Employee engagement surveys will only make a difference for your organization if you support them with realistic action plans to which leaders are held accountable.

The use of the employee engagement survey is a fairly common practice for many organizations. This is no surprise, since the link between employee engagement and company performance is well established. According to Gallup, companies with highly engaged employees have 3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to those with low engagement scores. Yet there is no common agreement on many aspects of the process, what to measure or even the definition of engagement. However, there are some guiding principles that will greatly enhance the effectiveness and value of using engagement surveys.

Guiding Principles

Confidentiality and Anonymity: People must be able to complete the surveys anonymously without exception. Use a third party to distribute and collect the surveys and to compile the data. Remember the power of engagement surveys is to obtain candid, unfiltered feedback, which is easier to gather when employees aren’t concerned about being identified.

Leadership Commitment: Be absolutely certain that the leaders from the top executive down support the survey process.  This means that:

  • You must clarify how the leaders define engagement and what they want to measure. Identify any issues on which they do not want to solicit feedback. A general rule of thumb is never ask a question when you don’t intend to address the issue.
  • Leadership must be open to “listening” to the feedback, be willing to communicate the results (both positive and negative) and translate those results into action. There may be situations when the organization does not choose to act upon specific feedback, but the reasons for those decisions should be honestly communicated.

Timing: There are three primary considerations when it comes to timing:

  • First, talk to your business leaders to evaluate the “rhythm of the business. “ Are there segments of time when a significant number of people will be out of the office, when key product launch deadlines or tradeshows are looming, or other events that will impact participation? Schedule a time that is best suited to your business cycle.
  • Second, look at the HR calendar. No one wants to be inundated by HR initiatives, and you don’t want to overload your team. Avoid scheduling the engagement survey on the heels of other significant HR work.
  • Don’t assume that you have to conduct a survey every year. The real value of the process comes from employees trusting that their organization is listening to and acting upon their feedback. It is far more effective to space the surveys at intervals that allow the organization time to have great follow-up, than to rush through actions to meet the next year’s survey deadline. An annual survey may work for some organizations, but eighteen to twenty-four months is the guideline I prefer.

Identify the Employee Groups: While this may seem obvious, it may require some thought. Remove contractors from the distribution (including contractors in an engagement survey may jeopardize their non-employee status). Are there specific business units or categories of employees that are too different from the overall organization and should be handled differently? Once you have identified the people to be surveyed make sure everyone receives a survey—even if it means using different delivery methods.

Designing or Selecting the Right Survey: Now that you have the basics sorted out, you are ready to make the decisions about the survey content. Whether you design the survey in-house, select a product off the shelf or hire a survey company will depend on several factors, such as the size and complexity of the organization; internal skills, resources and budget; the need for language translation; in-house availability of people trained in survey development and similar issues. One consideration that is often overlooked in the decision process is the need for benchmarking. Regardless of what survey form you use, you will want to include a number of core questions that you will use in subsequent surveys. These core questions will become your internal benchmarks to monitor long-term trends.

Some organizations may also place a premium on external benchmarking in key areas. If this is the case, you will be best served to hire a vendor who specializes in employee engagement surveys. They will be able to provide core questions and results from other organizations that you can use for external benchmarking. If you are interested in external benchmarking, be sure you define the kinds of organizations against whom you want to be compared and select a vendor that can give you that data.

Next week we will take a look at finding the “hidden gems” as you review the survey results and the all-important Action Planning process.

Beliefs, Truths and The Bottom Line: OD Realities


After working in the field of organizational development for several years, I have had to learn many hard truths about organizational change in business.

The first hard truth I’ve had to accept about business is that the good guys don’t always win. I know of several massively dysfunctional organizations that make tons of money and are recognized as the darlings of Wall Street. In these organizations, vision and values have no connection to reality, and people remain primarily because they get a piece of the action in the form of “sticky” compensation plans or relatively rich benefits. While these organizations may advertise themselves as places where people matter, or as collaborative environments where people can make a difference, the truth is that their employee relations strategy is to pay off the people they need, and replace the rest whenever it’s convenient or practical to do so.

Truth #1: Cynical, sad, but true: organizational success, defined only in bottom line terms, has nothing to do with whether or not people are happy, fulfilled or have the opportunity to find meaning in their work. If people believe that profit is all that matters, whether you’re talking about business or personal profit, there is little you can do to change the belief if they can “prove” that it’s true and their needs for money and status are satisfied.

Another hard truth I’ve had to learn is that what people believe is more important than “the truth,” and that even distorted beliefs can have enormous staying power. All of the dysfunctional organizations mentioned above have a core of “true believers” in leadership positions who, as long as they perceive themselves as favored children and continue to get a piece of the action, will defend the organization and hold the vision and values as gospel, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Much like the Communists of old, they constantly and publicly proclaim their loyalty and commitment to the organization’s direction and dogma, and root out non-believers who fail to get with the program. Generally they avoid the “show trials” used by the Communists and instead use stealth and secrecy to maneuver non-believers out of the organization. They do this because deep down inside, they know that the foundation on which they’ve built their beliefs is a very fragile thing, so they feel threatened by anyone who questions that foundation.

Truth #2: Organizational success depends more on the strength of the belief system, no matter how distorted that belief system may be. “If we believe it, it must be true” is a very powerful force. As long as an organization possesses a few leaders with the ability to effectively respond to opportunities and threats in the marketplace with crystalline clarity, its chances of bottom line success remain high if those leaders can convince the people that do the work that the direction has a payoff. The process of convincing people of that does not require in any way that leaders tell the truth. “If they believe it, that’s good enough.” Distortion “works” if enough people believe in the distorted information.

The third truth is the most important, because it opens the door to positive change. Sometimes leadership’s sales pitches don’t work and people don’t get with the program. The frustrated response of leadership is to “clean house.” These efforts are rarely successful because the belief system has a life of its own. If you talk to people who have served in the Navy, you’ll find that many are absolutely convinced that there’s such a thing as a “bad ship.” This is a ship that is so cursed and unlucky that even if you replaced all the officers and crew with new ones, the curse would remain in place and it would continue to be a bad ship. They’re actually right! The myth of the bad ship spreads like wildfire through the ranks, so anyone transferred to the ship goes in believing that they’re in for an unlucky experience. It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true for organizations with a bad reputation in the employment market: if “everyone knows” that an organization is a mess, they’ll either avoid the place entirely or, desperate for a job, join the organization with teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.

Truth #3: Belief systems can become myths and myths have a life of their own. Ignore myths at your peril! The key to successful and healthy organizational change is to identify the myths, expose them as myths and reeducate people to deal with the world as is rather than what they would like it to be.

That last truth is connected to another truth: organizations move away from a bottom line mentality only when its members, especially those in leadership, feel enough pain to motivate them to change their beliefs and habits. When everyone’s making money and feeling flush, it’s easy to ignore the distortions, waste, inauthenticity and absurdity that characterize a dysfunctional organization. Only when an organization experiences failure will its members become willing to face the truth and begin to create an organization that is something more than an entity that exploits and is exploited by its members.

The final truth involves something every organizational development practitioner has to accept: not everyone shares your values! While you may believe in the importance of creating a humane workplace where people collaborate to create a truly meaningful and productive work experience, that belief may not be shared by people grounded in the hard world of profit and loss. This is why an OD practitioner has to assess each consulting opportunity with cold objectivity, and determine whether they’re hiring you to help create positive change or engaging in a window-dressing exercise.

Still, even if you think the odds are a long shot, go for it if there are few slivers of tangible evidence that positive change may be possible. There are few experiences in life as satisfying as helping people face the truth, learn how to deal with it and choose their own directions.

© Aydindurdu | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images


Leadership: Why Results Don’t Matter As Much as You Might Think

Hopefully no one’s idea of what a great leader should be.

As I prepare to deliver a new round of our Leadership Choices course in a couple of weeks, by sheer accident I happen to be reading Robert Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin.


Surprisingly enough, I am learning a lot about leadership in reading Stalin’s biography, most of it falling in the “how not to do it” category. One of the most fundamentally evil leaders in history, Stalin would certainly fail any sane person’s gut-check level test on quality leadership. It’s therefore interesting that one could make the case that Stalin might have scored reasonably well on a survey measuring him against the five key leadership practices defined by Kouzes and Posner:

  • Challenging the Process: He entirely transformed both the government and the society. He refused to believe that experts had all the answers and constantly challenged existing assumptions.
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision: While he certainly didn’t bother to develop a consensus, he had a very clear and articulate vision of what he wanted the Soviet Union to become.
  • Enabling Others to Act: He ensured that thousands of workers were promoted into management positions.
  • Modeling the Way: He worked hard, dressed simply and rarely indulged himself in luxury.
  • Encouraging the Heart: He sent congratulations to artists, scientists and bureaucrats for work performed on behalf of the nation.

While all of this is true, it’s also superficial nonsense. Stalin never allowed anyone to challenge his processes, and any deviation from what he thought was the best course resulted in execution or a long stay in a gulag. His vision was singular and imposed upon millions of innocent people by brute force. He was a supreme control freak, paranoid to the extreme, trusted no one and gave specific instructions to even senior-level people that he expected to be carried out to the letter. He was secretive, manipulative and achieved most of his goals through terror and violence. He sent hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps and millions to their deaths.

Yes, Stalin got the job done. Not particularly efficiently, but effectively. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and allowed nothing and no one to stand in his way. In other words, he had qualities that people in business often say they admire, especially when they fail to look beneath the surface qualities of leadership.

Stalin’s story is an extreme example of why, in the end, the belief that “results are all that matter” is fundamentally absurd. How leaders achieve results is often more important than what they achieve, for while reporting periods and the quarterly conference call pass into history, how one leads has lasting effects on the culture. If a leader achieves results through unethical or immoral practices, through unbridled egotism or through an at-all-costs approach, he or she destroys trust throughout the organization and strips the work of any meaning. Much of my work in organizational development involves trying to help organizations where trust has been shattered by a leader who cared only about the bottom line and had no interest in the people or the culture.

People matter. Values matter. Ethics matter. Kouzes and Posner stress this in every one of their five leadership practices, if you read more deeply into their explanations of those practices. The why and the how matter as much as the what, and truly great leaders are those who never forget that.