Wikipedia’s overview of Organizational Development contains the following explanation of the role of a change agent:

A change agent in the sense used here is not a technical expert skilled in such functional areas as accounting, production, or finance. The change agent is a behavioral scientist who knows how to get people in an organization involved in solving their own problems. A change agent’s main strength is a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior, supported by a number of intervention techniques (to be discussed later). The change agent can be either external or internal to the organization. An internal change agent is usually a staff person who has expertise in the behavioral sciences and in the intervention technology of OD.

I disagree that “a change agent’s main strength is comprehensive knowledge of human behavior” and a bag of tricks called intervention techniques. The change agent’s main strengths must be personal integrity and the ability to engage with and fully understand the people and the culture they’re trying to help.

While expertise is certainly important, the truth is that many people are suspicious of experts, especially when they perceive those experts as “talking down to them.” This creates defensive behavior that eliminates any possibility of real dialogue. Without real dialogue, the change agent will always miss what the change in question really means to the people involved. Without that understanding, the change process will become corrupted. Unless the change agent inspires trust, his or her knowledge of human behavior and intervention techniques will prove perfectly useless. Expertise can never be a substitute for personal integrity.

Personal integrity involves more than “doing what you say you’re going to do.” It also involves more than a commitment to help people solve their own problems, or what we call “helping people work through their choices.” That commitment is important, but a change agent will not be much help to people without mastery of the most important competency of all: self-awareness.

A change agent often ignores the fact that when they are trying to change an organization, he or she is acting from the self. Without self-awareness, a change agent can easily contaminate a change process with hidden agendas and unsatisfied psychological needs. Without engaging in the often difficult personal exploration that leads to self-awareness, a change agent will never be capable of the reflective insight that is key to developing a healthier organization. Self-awareness also has the curious effect of increasing the ability to empathize with others and the problems they face in trying to become more capable human beings. When a change agent combines a lack of empathy with a laser-like focus on behavior, the only things that change are the things on the surface. You may create compliant human beings who learn how to tell you want you want to hear, but you have changed nothing except given people a different game to play. They’ll learn the new rules and speak the new language, but the underlying problems will remain undisturbed.

Authenticity is critical to successful change. Unless people are open and honest with each other, hidden problems will always disrupt a change effort. The change agent’s role, therefore, must include the ability to model authenticity. The change agent needs to put all the cards on the table and encourage others to do the same.

However, it is impossible to engage in that kind of authenticity without self-awareness. If you have no idea who you are, how can anyone else know who you are? And if they don’t know who you are, how on earth can they trust you? Without trust, you will never get the unfiltered information you will need to help effect positive and lasting change. Focusing entirely on structures, systems, processes and behavior is a completely inadequate approach to change. All transformational change begins with self-awareness and ends in mutual trust.

All your expertise won’t save you if they don’t see you as someone they can trust.

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As noted in the previous post, engagement surveys are useful for two things: capturing mass information on general trends and identifying areas worthy of more conversation. Depending on the design of the survey, engagement surveys are useful for capturing how employees feel about benefits, compensation programs and the like.

Engagement surveys fall short in two areas. The first is in capturing opinions about leadership. Our recommendation is that if you use an engagement survey, delete all of the questions having to do with  satisfaction with the supervisor and opinions about top leadership and use a valid, competency-based 360 instrument instead. The standard questions in an engagement survey dealing with leadership fall more into the popularity contest category. They’re more likely to create defensiveness in supervisors who do not score well and a false high for those who do. It’s better to use a valid 360 (such as those offered by The Center for Creative Leadership) tied to specific competencies that not only give leaders more accurate feedback but also show them a path to improvement.

The second area where engagement surveys miss the boat is in really capturing what’s going on in a culture. You can’t capture that by using pre-defined, standardized, one-size-fits-all questions because every organizational culture is unique. Each and every organizational culture has a unique language, a unique set of values and a unique world-view created by the complex dynamics of history, leadership and the myriad differences in the people who work there.

This failure is most clearly demonstrated in those “great-place-to-work” surveys. There are always several companies who make the list that everyone knows are massively dysfunctional organizations operating behind a veneer of excellent compensation, benefits and work-life programs that are over-emphasized in such surveys. Beneath the programs and the cheery internal marketing you will often find people who feel entitled rather than engaged, protective of position and perks and who can hide their astonishing lack of real productivity in the nooks and crannies of what is usually a bloated organization. The primary interest of the employee is to keep what they have rather than produce what they could, a strategy they’ve adopted because well, if you can’t find real fulfillment on the job, you might as well get what you can while you’re there.

The only way you can approach the truth about a culture is to reverse the process used in engagement surveys. Instead of defining questions and categories in advance, you use one single question to spark a conversation:

“Tell me what it’s like to work here.”

This is the essence of what we call a Culture Study. Instead of imposing a consultant’s world-view on the people of the organization, you focus on learning how they perceive the world, in their own language. That single question begins a conversation, and in the natural course of the conversation, the consultant will ask clarifying questions, paraphrase what the employee said and use simple active listening to try to fully understand how this individual experiences the workplace. The process of a Culture Study removes the fundamental bias of human communication: “You mean what I think you mean.”

The consultant therefore becomes a cultural anthropologist rather than a high-level file clerk. The work of a Culture Study comes after the conversations, where the consultant pores through the texts of many conversations to identify the real cultural norms, the pain points and the many truths that are often left unsaid. This produces a summary that is shared with everyone in the organization, an act that has a immediate and positive effect on the culture: conversation topics that were previously taboo are now problems an organization can face and solve. The whispered conversations in hallways and behind closed doors are no longer necessary; the fear attached to saying the unsayable has been abolished. The real issues can now be addressed instead of buried under the usual b. s.

Needless to say, a Culture Study involves several implementation challenges. The first and most critical is that top leadership has to fully commit to the process: they have to allow the truth to come out. This requirement usually disqualifies most organizations, as top leadership is too often filled with self-protective people more interested in advancing their careers than advancing the organization. The leaders have to commit to not using their power to stop the process—something that is very difficult for those people who enjoy leadership because of its power to control rather than its power to inspire. There have been  times when we have had to stop the Culture Study process before it begins because we sense in leadership an unstated unwillingness to tell and face the truth.

The second challenge involves participation in the interviews. For smaller organizations (250 and under), this is easy: everyone participates. When an organization moves beyond that size, you have to identify a sample—and the worst thing you can do is allow leadership to define that sample, which would bias your results before you start. The proper way to go about it is to generate a random sample of people in the organization, eliminating all bias relating to position, gender, race and other demographics. From a cultural standpoint, everyone in an organization participates in the culture, so if you want a real look at what’s going on, you need a truly representative sample that is not contaminated by favoritism.

Combining a Culture Study with an engagement survey can give you both the mass data you need to manage programs and the unfiltered honesty of the people who make up your culture. Properly facilitated, the process can uncover hidden problems that may be significant obstacles to organizational progress. However, a Culture Study is not for the faint of heart: it will uncover things that many organizations would rather sweep under the rug. On the upside, a Culture Study clearly communicates that every individual matters and that they have the responsibility to participate in the improvement of the organization. That’s real engagement.

In our third installment, we’ll talk about what individual leaders can do to ensure engagement within their sphere of influence.

Photo Credit: © Sarasta | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Once upon a time I worked in an organization for a leader who was scared to death.

He was frightened that the industry was falling apart, that the competition would eat us alive, that various agencies, attorneys and disloyal employees were circling in the skies overhead waiting to pounce on us if we made the slightest mistake.

So, he led from fear, and frightened the entire organization. He tried to control everything, from the big decisions to the trivial decisions. He would reverse course on a whim, on a fragment of information, on instinct. He would bark orders and make disparaging comments about any alternative course of action. He cut spending, because the first thing a frightened person does is hoard resources. He watched every move his subordinates made, because a scared person stops trusting anyone but himself.

After a while, people just gave up and did what he told them to do, no matter how silly it was. They followed the common wisdom, “keep your heads down.”

But while they talked behind the leader’s back about how absurd things had become, those subordinate executives were just as scared as the guy on the top. They were afraid of saying or doing anything that could cause them to disappear overnight into the black hole of outplacement. They had much to lose in terms of income, status and security, so they said nothing, implemented initiatives they knew were misguided and suppressed any opposing urges.

Because they all bought into the fear, they stopped trusting each other. Now they were all in competition for a scarce resource based on the logic, “He can’t fire us all.” In turn, they stopped trusting their subordinates, because they knew that no matter how innocent the mistake made by an underling, the leader would come down on their heads like a guillotine.

Eventually the leader’s fear translated into meaningless, random staff reductions that were little more than self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and justified by the macho restorative, “sometimes you have to make the tough calls.” Fear intensified and spread throughout the organization and even beyond. Because while the executives were cutting staff, they followed the logic of rightsizing and continued to hire people. Unfortunately for them, word had gotten around that this wasn’t the safest place to work, and only the underskilled and desperate bothered to apply. The organization lived on the fumes of past success for a while, then was mercifully put to sleep by an investment firm that gutted it for what was usable, which by that time, wasn’t much at all.

Once upon a time . . . don’t I wish. I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over in every industry and it will never end as long as insecure leaders obsessed with personal survival forget their responsibility to the people they lead.

Photo Credit: © Kiankhoon | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos