Organizational Change and Leadership Burnout

With Corporate America as volatile as it’s ever been, how are you supposed to have any energy left for yourself or your family when you go home at the end of the day? Here are four tips to help you avoid leadership burnout.

It’s true that executive teams are putting more and more pressure on leaders and that we are experiencing unprecedented change in the workplace. But, how much pressure do you put on yourself to:

  • Engage and motivate your direct reports every day in spite of a meaningful lack of strategic direction or focus?Organizational Change
  • Continually challenge your team to find innovative ways to do more with less?
  • Enthusiastically take on an ever-increasing number of projects?

All of the above are key elements of being a good leader, and on the good days you probably take everything in stride.  On the bad days, though, it may be all you can do to help everyone else just hang in there, let alone yourself.

If you have started to dream about your job every night, if your attention on weekends is tangled up in problem-solving and focused more on the upcoming week than the present moment, here are four tips you may find useful:

1. Whatever is happening at work is just a point in time:  Many of the women in my mother-in-law’s church have been known to say “this too shall pass” when life is just too much to bear. It helps to remember that whatever stress we are experiencing in any given moment really is just a point in time.

2. 9s beat 8s, so apply the Span of Control Model to your current situation:  “Sher, your major problem is that you keep forgetting 9s beat 8s every time in poker. You are an 8. It doesn’t matter what you think about this situation. The 9s have all the power. You have no control, and this is not part of your job. So, give up, and move on.” Rick a director of Human Resources, was a good colleague of mine. I have never forgotten his advice.

Earlier in my career, I took on more extra work than I ever needed to. I did it because I believed that if I just worked hard enough, long enough, talked to the right people, and didn’t give up I could make a bigger difference. Sometimes it made sense to take on this extra work. Other times it didn’t, and my energy was misspent instead of focused. I would go home stressed and unable to forget about work.  Then, a friend drew the Span of Control model on a napkin and explained it to me one night over dinner. (See figure above.*)

When we truly focus on what is within our area of responsibility first, then judiciously consider where we might influence a situation—and quit stressing about those things that are totally outside of our control, our jobs are much more manageable–and so is our stress level.

3. Know when to fold:  I’d been hired to build a new department at GE, and I’d just hired a new manager. About a month after she started, she came into my office to tell me an opportunity had come up for her to move into another field, and she had to take it. She apologized, but I understood. The problem I faced was that our business group was under pressure to control hiring—not exactly a hiring freeze—but close. I knew that if I built my case and asked my CEO for permission to replace her, he would probably say yes. I also knew he would not be happy about it. On the other hand, I was charged with building a strong new department. I wanted to do the best job I could for my business unit, so I was pretty stressed out about what to do.

Finally, I went in and explained to the CEO that the new manager I’d hired the month before had a new opportunity. I told him that given the current hiring situation, I was proposing that we hold off on replacing her. I explained that I could still deliver on all the key projects, and that some of the nice-to-have projects could easily be put on hold for a few months.

Two fantastic things happened as a result. First, all the stress I’d put on myself about having to fight to build this new department was alleviated by the support I got from all my executive team mates as they worked with me to prioritize what really needed to happen. Nine months later, my department had accomplished everything we’d promised. The second good thing happened when the CEO called me into his office. He said “I want to thank you, Sher, for giving up your open position. It was a stressful time for our business unit, and now things are back on track. Your team has done a great job this year, and I want you to think about how you want to build your department.” That day he told me I could design the department in any way I wished and that he would support any hires I wanted to make.

4. Learn how to go with the flow:  This phrase was quite popular in the 1970s. One day not too long ago, a friend of mine asked me if I really knew what it meant. My reply was something along the lines of “it means that you have no power and to accept where the river of life chooses to send you.” His response was an immediate, “Nope. What it really means is that you have to use all your experience and talent to dip your paddle in the flow of what is happening and begin to move in the direction you really want to go.” Thought provoking, isn’t it?

What helps me most when times are stressful at work, when I think if I work a little longer or a little harder, is to remember what’s really important. There will always be another crisis or a new challenge at work. In fact, there will always be another job. What we all have to remember, is that work is just a part of our lives. It isn’t our whole life.  What matters is our family and our friends. In the end, no one can control how much we work, how much we sacrifice for our jobs but us.


*Note: I have not able to find the source for this model. If anyone knows of it, please send me a note.

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The Perils and Pitfalls of Leadership Emails–and 6 Tips to Avoid Them

When Rick forwarded the email of his new job description to all of his colleagues, he forgot the notes he’d appended to himself below, which highlighted sensitive information, including the salary range of his boss.

Have you ever hit send and then wished you could hit undo? Although sometimes you can recall an email, many times it’s too late. Whatever you’ve written and how you felt when you wrote it is out there for the world to see.Tips to avoid leadership email problems Here are 6 tips to help you stay out of trouble and get the results you want.

1. If you are angry or upset write a draft. Do NOT hit send. I know of one leader who was so frustrated that she wrote in response to a report she’d just received, “Bill, this is garbage. Can’t you get your team under control? I want this redone immediately.”

Now, I have to tell you, I saw that report. It wasn’t garbage. One of the most cathartic feelings in the world can be to write out our frustrations. That said, nine times out of ten–no, let’s make that 9.9 times out of ten–if we are really upset, what we write may be our own truth of the moment or just a venting of our frustration. It will not be a productive way to communicate. So, when you are really frustrated, write a draft. The safest way is to write it in a Word document. Put your draft away, overnight if possible, but at least for an hour. Then, reread it, copy and paste–and only then hit send.

2. Remember, whatever you send in an email can be forwarded. Be very careful. In the example above, that particular leader was having a bad day. Unfortunately, the direct report she sent it to forwarded her email to his team, and yes, well, you know the story. It ended up being an incredible demotivator for a group of employees who were working hard to put out some excellent work under extremely difficult circumstances.

3. Refuse to forward punishing or defamatory information. Nobody wins by receiving an email with nasty or pejorative comments. When leaders must provide critical feedback, one-way communication such as an email is never acceptable. Sensitive topics and communication must happen face-to-face. Or, if that isn’t possible, voice-to-voice, so that the recipient can ask questions and together you can resolve the issues.

4. Write a compelling subject line. The most important element in any email is the subject line. Your direct reports and colleagues are as busy as you are. If you don’t give them a reason to focus on your message, they may not open it in time to take the actions you want them to take.

I once worked with an executive who was desperately trying to introduce and manage change in his department. Three out of four times, his subject line would read “Important Information.” The problem was that after a while it was like the boy who cried wolf, and people didn’t respond as quickly as he wished. Finally, after one brave colleague suggested he summarize his critical information in the subject line, he began to get the attention he wanted. Instead of “important information,” he wrote subject lines such as: “Reports due by Friday at 10:00.” “Customer Feedback Report–Your Input Required by 5/15.” And, so on. Think about your subject line like this. If that was all they read, would your readers have an idea about the contents of your email?

5. Never forward an email from someone else without rewriting a pertinent subject line. Emily reported to a Marketing executive in a company that was undergoing a company-wide transformation. People worked around the clock to analyze customer needs, redo their digital marketing strategy, and transform their websites, trade show tactics, and overall approach to the marketplace. On average, team members received about 100 emails a day–many from their leader.

Unfortunately, this leader forwarded dozens of emails with processes, examples, and reports from current and former colleagues. He believed that the information they contained would accelerate the organizational change he wanted. What he neglected to do was change the original sender’s subject line to one that was meaningful and related to what he wanted his team to do with the information. An email with a subject line that read, “Company XYZ’s Customer Metrics for July,” didn’t seem critical when people received it. But when they finally opened the email and read his instructions, they learned their boss wanted to adopt a similar process, and he was frustrated that several days had gone by. Yeah, yeah, I know if something is from your boss, it’s a good idea to read it, but the fact is if anyone receives 100 emails in a day, one that does not seem hot may go unnoticed. He did this a lot.

6. Include just one main topic or action per email. A friend of mine once received an email that listed several job descriptions and examples of how to write a compelling resume to get an interview in a field she was extremely interested in joining. At the bottom of the email, her colleague had included a job opportunity. Unfortunately, my friend was going out of town, and didn’t see the most important part of the email until she returned.

By that time, the job was closed. The sender could have avoided this issues by sending two emails with separate headings:  1) Job Opportunity–Check it Out! and 2) Resume Examples for Project Manager Jobs in Information Technology. The first is clearly time critical. The second just as clearly not.

Email is an important communication tool in our crazy, busy worlds if we are to stay in touch. As leaders we just have to remember that once something is written and sent, it’s out there for all the world to see. Our goal is to get the results we really want. So, on those tricky, difficult days when you don’t have two seconds to rub together, take a breath and read what you’ve written before you hit send.


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A Zen Master on a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

We all have them. You know, those days when from dawn to dusk nothing seems to go right at work.

I can handle a lot of change and a fair amount of conflict. What sends me over the edge every time, though, is when my technology quits working right about the time I have a deliverable. I can go from zero calm to totally frazzled in 2.5 seconds–or less. I’m not proud of it, but that’s how I’ve been wired in the past.

Stressed out leaders

But today was different. It was different because I got the best coaching I’ve ever gotten about how to manage my techno-stress. I believe this advice will also serve me well in other areas of my work and personal life, so I’d like to share it with you.

My Story

I’ll start with a bit of back story. I’m currently working a gig as a Change Manager for a major company. Last week, just as I was getting the hang of things and had a bunch of deliverables to hand over and presentations to make, strange things began to happen with my computer.

The first thing was that every PowerPoint slide would print with all the text outside of the shapes. I called and received some excellent support from our IT experts, but we didn’t find the problem day one, day two, or even day three. On day four, Outlook began doing funny things as well. We found a temporary fix that worked but then on day five that poor computer had to think awfully hard to boot up at all. I started to wonder if the hard drive was going.

Yep, that was it. So, our IT team provided me with a loaner machine, and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I could still make my deadlines. Unfortunately, the hard drive on that machine wasn’t working either. My stress was rising, but the next day things started looking up when I got a call to pick up my work computer.

It was as good as new. I was jubilant. So, today I got up at dawn determined to catch up and even get ahead with all the work that had begun to pile up. I rolled into work ready to move mountains. Then, I turned on the computer. Nothing happened. It wouldn’t boot up. For the first few minutes, I was cool, I was calm. I know what you’re supposed to do if your computer won’t boot up. Reboot, right? No such luck. That darn machine just would not boot up. I panicked.

A Session with a Technical Zen Master

I trudged downstairs with gloom on my face and found my IT expert. He took one look at me, and this is what he said.

“Breathe, Sher. Take a big, deep breath and just breathe.”

“But you don’t understand,” I began to babble. “This isn’t the first time . . .” and I started to enumerate all my techno-woes.

My computer expert smiled gently and held up a hand.

“Stay with me, right now in this moment.”

“But . . . ”

My new Zen Master didn’t lose one ounce of calm. He wasn’t arrogant, frustrated, or pushy when he nodded at me and said,

“I understand that you have a story about all the things that have happened, but let’s focus on what is happening right this minute. Stay with me in this moment, and don’t think about the past. When you come right down to it, all we can do anyway is focus on now and fix the problem.”

So, I took a breath, sat down, and then took another. What he said certainly made sense and the way he said it was lovely. And, wouldn’t you know it, when he turned on the computer it booted right up. The computer had just been cycling through some updates. That’s all. I was on my way in less than five minutes.

The Choice is Ours

For the rest of the day, I kept thinking about what my computer expert had said. I thought about how I handled other situations and how my colleagues did as well. Most of the time, we don’t have control over things that go wrong. But we always have control over how we respond. It’s so easy to fall into our own stories about woulda, coulda, shoulda, and yet telling and retelling our woes doesn’t solve a darn thing in the end.

Taking a deep breath, though, and thinking about what we can do in the present to move forward is much more productive. Taking action to put a plan in place and then moving forward alleviates stress enormously.

The choice is always ours. We just have to remember that. I will never forget how kind this computer expert was today in helping me resolve my techo-issues. Instead of thinking I might have to move to Australia–the potential solution for the main character in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst–I finished my day right where I most wanted to be. Here in Minneapolis, working with a brand new client. How lucky did I get to be?


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Four Tips to Help Your Team Avoid Jumping to the Wrong Solution

“If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.”   –Albert Einstein

Think back to the last time you were part of a team charged with solving a problem. During that first meeting, did you Change management techniquesspend more time:

  • Defining the problem to identify the root cause behind the failure, or more time
  • Talking about potential solutions?

In our culture we often leap to solutions before we’re absolutely sure what it is we need to fix. It’s a fact that most of us are pressed for time. It’s also true that time is money.

However, it’s a lack of clarity and understanding about how to resolve our challenges that leads to frustration and wasted resources every time.

4 tips to identify the most viable solution

  1. Forget hierarchy and title.
  2. Use a facilitated approach to team problem-solving.
  3. Promote a balance of divergent and convergent thinking.
  4. Ask why 5 times to identify the root cause.

Forget hierarchy and title:  Include the people who are closest to the work. Although this might seem obvious, teams often include leaders only or members from just one function, instead of a cross-section of individual contributors who are closest to what is going on and who are invaluable to identifying a solid, cost-effective solution.

Use a facilitated approach to team problem-solving:  Encourage your teams to think beyond the first ideas that extroverted team members may quickly offer. Fact is, some incredibly valuable ideas may exist in the minds of the more introverted members of your team as well and they may never see the light of day. Also, an observation or comment from a quiet team member may spur a new idea from another.  The best resource I have ever found to facilitate problem-solving is Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He provides easy-to-use tips and tools to collect diverse points of view, create a shared framework of understanding, and develop viable solutions.

Promote a balance of divergent and convergent thinking:  Create a team norm that prohibits comments like, “yeah, but that won’t work because …” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work…” or any other negative comment that would cause the discussion to come to a close before you have opened it to all the possibilities. Then, begin your initial problem-solving sessions with divergent thinking to allow people to offer up any facts and ideas that come to mind.Decision-making model for organizational change

Because we are so pressed for time, it’s natural to want to jump quickly to solutions. The problem is that in doing so, we limit the scope and quality of our decisions. In his book, Sam Kaner illustrates how to leverage both divergent and convergent thinking. Both are critical. Both are necessary.

Ask why 5 times to help you identify the root cause of your problem:   Sakichi Toyodo developed the 5 Whys Tool at Toyoto Motor Corporation to help his teams identify the root cause of an issue and come up with the best solution. Now the tool is used within Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

I heard the following anecdote* during a workshop. It illustrates how the National Parks Service harnessed the power of the 5 Whys Tool:

The Problem:  The Jefferson Memorial stones are deteriorating. The initial solution was to haul up new stones from a quarry in the South to replace them. A costly, time-consuming process, which would involve closing the memorial for months. The team got the right people in the room, used divergent and convergent thinking to brainstorm and evaluate possible solutions. During the process, they asked why five times:

Why #1:  Why are the stones deteriorating?  Because we are cleaning them so often with abrasive chemicals. Potential solution:  better cleaning process.

Why #2:  Why do we need such abrasive chemicals?  Because an abrasive cleaner is the best way to clean off the pigeon droppings that have recently increased. Potential solution:  eliminate the pigeons.

Why #3:  Why all the pigeons?  Because they flock to feed on all the spiders. Potential solution:  kill the spiders.

Why #4:  Why so many spiders?  Because they are attracted by all those tiny flying insects called midges. Potential solution:  kill the midges.

Why #5:  Why all the midges?  Because they are attracted by the monument’s lights during their twilight swarming period.  The Best Solution Turn the monument lights on two hours later.

The final solution was cost-effective and simple. Just think of how much money might have been spent if the team had not taken time to understand and define the problem that needed to be resolved.

So, the next time your team is charged with solving a problem–where will you spend the bulk of your time during that first meeting?


*Source unknown

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A Strategy to Create Awareness and Reinforce Organizational Change

Honeywell’s annual Big Red H Award Program created lasting behavior changes and played a key role in developing world-class communications professionals who contributed to company success.

In the mid-eighties, few standards existed among Honeywell’s Aerospace and Defense communications professionals. Communicators ranged from those who thought their jobs consisted of writing and SOS—sending out stuff—and those who created strategic communications to help leaders manage organizational change and achieve company goals.Change management strategy

Not surprisingly, the company valued the second group highly. So, their leaders launched a program called the Big Red H. The goal was to encourage best-in-class work and develop high-quality professionals.

The Big Red H Program consisted of three steps:

  1. At the end of each year, communicators submitted their best work for evaluation by a group of experts.
  2. The submission process required communicators to describe their project, identify quantitative objectives, provide an audience analysis for each stakeholder group, and define their strategy to mitigate resistance for each project they submitted. In addition, and this was the most important element, communicators needed to list the measurable results they achieved. For novice communicators, completing the submission to The Big Red H Program created awareness about the elements of an excellent communication plan. For more experienced professionals, the process served to reinforce what it took to be a world-class communicator.
  3. All communicators were invited to attend an annual best-in-class communications conference whether they’d submitted a project or not. During that conference, people were honored, projects highlighted, awards presented, and communicators had a chance to learn and share best practices.

The program was beautiful in its design and simplicity because it:

  • Provided ongoing awareness about the value of strategic communications—not just to the communicators but to the leaders they supported as well.
  • Created the desire among communications professionals to adopt best practices and to be recognized as highly competent among peers and leadership.
  • Reinforced ongoing behavior and actions throughout the Aerospace and Defense Group to be a strategic communicator whose work made a difference to the success of the company.

What type of organizational change do you want to achieve in your company? How might an awards program create awareness and reinforce the behavior you want?

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Leadership Resources: 7 Ways to Unleash Creativity

“It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for two years, but will soon be out-of-date.”  Roger von Oech, author and consultant

2013 promises to be every bit as challenging—or more so than 2012. Here are seven resources and links for building creative problem-solving skills to help you and your teams identify new and better solutions to the challenges you face in the coming year.Leadership tips and tools

  1. Use mind mapping techniques and software: In his book, Use Both Sides of Your Brain, Tony Buzan describes how mind mapping can be a quick, easy way to brainstorm, capture ideas, and create a plan or document. Buzon offers a free trial of his iMindMap6 mind mapping software, which is also available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.
  2. Activate your explorer, judge, artist, and warriorRoger von Oech is an author, inventor, and consultant. He started his company, Creative Think, in 1977 to stimulate creativity in business. He wrote  A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, which are filled with fun tips, stories, and games that stimulate new ways to confront old and new challenges.
  3. Consider an innovation training program: Synecticsworld provides ground-breaking programs in innovative teamwork, facilitating group creativity, seeing with new eyes, and other custom learning programs. I took a week-long course from them several years ago—it was one of the most thought-provoking and useful programs I’ve ever attended.
  4. Daydream at work: Did you know that Google and 3M give their employees time and space to daydream? In her book, Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers, Amy Fries provides suggestions about how to build personal energy and motivation by tapping into your own daydreams. She also includes interviews and stories, and questionnaires to identify your own daydreaming style.
  5. Play games with your team:  Human Synergistics International offers affordable team simulations to enhance group problem-solving skills and decision-making effectiveness, while strengthening cooperation and communication among team members.
  6. Learn and apply new innovation techniques:  Michael Michalko, the author of Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, and ThinkPak, provides a host of techniques to unlock creativity. He describes how to reverse conventional assumptions, manipulate what exists into something different, use a variety of exercises to generate new ideas for products, markets, and sales, and much more.
  7. Ask your team to draw their emotions:  Emography is a right brain activity that allows teams to think and interact on a deeper level. It is especially effective during organizational change.

Wishing you a satisfying and creative year!  Sher Foerster Kyweriga

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Three Types of Leaders Exist–What Type Are You?

As we move into 2013, we have the opportunity to take a new look at the leadership challenges we face and how we choose to meet them. Below is an updated version of the first blog I wrote in June 2012. I offer it as a reminder that when we care and dare enough we will make a difference to our world.Change management and communication tips for leaders

Did you know that three types of leaders exist?

  1. Leaders who can talk about anything to anyone to make things happen. But bottom line? They don’t care about their organizations or anyone in them. They care about looking good.
  2. Leaders who care passionately about making a difference but don’t know how to capture attention and inspire people to take action.
  3. Leaders who care passionately and have the communication and change management skills to establish credibility,  command attention, and put the right processes and systems in place to make things happen.

Oh, and another thing? True leadership is not a title. It’s a state of mind. When we care enough about our work and our teams to learn and share our unique gifts of knowledge and expertise—any one of us will be a leader who can make the difference between failure, mediocrity—or success.

Welcome to the last post in 2012 of Communicate with Moxie—the blog.  I chose this name because I believe the best leaders are those who possess fortitude and determination, spirit and courage. They care about people, and they care about making a difference. The best leaders are those who are willing to learn and apply innovative communication and change management techniques to capture attention, challenge the status quo, and get results.

Moxie. Although Apple may not have used the term in this old ad, the essence of leadership moxie is exactly what they captured by stating:  The ones who see things differently . . . They change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Stay tuned in 2013 for more blogs about how to sharpen your communication and change management skills to make the difference you want to make for your teams and organizations.

Happy New Year!

        Sher Foerster Kyweriga


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Avoid Three Common Mistakes When Launching Organizational Change

“What did we do to be treated so badly?” Alice shook her head, tears rolling down her face. “I’m just waiting to hear that I don’t have a job anymore.”

Twelve other people sat around the table nodding their heads in agreement.

It was midnight, end of the second shift at a Buffalo, New York plant for a global manufacturing company. Outside snow slammed against the windows of the conference room. It was two days before Christmas.

Several months earlier, the company had launched an organization-wide initiative to address evolving customer needs and improve the quality of their products. Although changes were progressing well in other locations, morale was extremely low at the Buffalo plant. My job was to find out why.

One of the others spoke up. “No one tells us anything since they announced this organizational transformation they keep talking about. It’s as though we don’t matter anymore. We get email after email filled with stuff, but no one comes to talk to us.”

“That’s right,” said a third person. “It didn’t used to be that way before you acquired us. This was our company, and we really made a difference. That’s why we chose to work here instead of somewhere else.”

It’s easy to underestimate the level of disruption that occurs when we launch a change initiative. Even when a change is positive, initially most people can only think, what will happen to me? Will I still have a job? What if I can’t take care of my family? Although these thoughts are common human nature, they have a profound impact on productivity and morale. Leaders often make three classic mistakes by:

  • Underestimating the power of the existing culture. Even with the best of good intentions, employees are used to doing their work in a certain way. Until they understand and have time to process the need for change, they will just keep doing what they’ve always done.
  • Moving too fast to implement changes while communicating too little or too late. Sometimes the pressure to just make things happen causes leaders to move forward before listening, assessing, and understanding the impact of the changes they wish to make. The result? Some employees shut down and let fear take over, others stand around and kvetch at the copy machine, and the rest keep charging ahead doing what they’ve always done—or worse, trying out new things that may not be beneficial. A lack of clarity around new roles and responsibilities is one of the biggest reasons change initiatives fail.
  • Forgetting the importance of connecting with people on all three levels:

 Intellectual:  Employees understand the rationale behind what needs to happen.

─ Emotional:  Employees buy in and want to support the need for change.

─ Practical:  Employees know how to make a personal contribution.

Organizational change is a process, not an event. Cookie cutter approaches don’t work because dynamics differ in every organization. Successful initiatives require a systematic, multifaceted change management process. Here are two excellent resources. Each provides a systematic approach to launching and sustaining successful change:

Back to our plant in Buffalo. It turned out that morale issues arose because corporate leaders did not appear in Buffalo to announce what was going to happen. Instead, they agreed that local Buffalo leaders would deliver all face-to-face communications. The goal was to reinforce their trust and to send this message to each employee:  You have run a successful organization for more than 50 years. As a newly acquired part of our company, we have every belief that your plant will continue to deliver high quality, innovative work. You are a critical part of this organization.

The intent was good—the understanding was not. Once corporate leaders understood how employees interpreted their absence, they modified their change management plans to make regular trips to meet onsite with local leaders and their teams. Morale improved exponentially.

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Business Communication: Keep It Simple

When we communicate at work, our primary objective is to get ideas from our minds directly into someone else’s quickly, concisely, and accurately. Our goal is to express—not impress.

Why use a four-syllable word when a one-syllable word works just as well—or better.  At work, it’s not uncommon to readCommunicate to express--not impress or hear something like this:

The manager’s utilization of corporate training facilities is less than optimal.

However, would anyone ever say:

My three-year old son’s utilization of the bathroom facilities is less than optimal.

Good ideas are impressive all on their own

Unless a particular word provides greater precision or nuance, it’s best to stick with the simplest, most direct words we can find. Some of the most eloquent communications in the world have been extremely simple:

  • Jesus wept. (This is the shortest sentence in the Bible.)
  • “The news from France is very bad.” Winston Churchill said this in his speech about Dunkirk. His message was much stronger than if he had said, “The situation in France is becoming increasingly serious.”
  • Roosevelt summed it up when he said, “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.”

Clarity is critical—an anecdote

Puffed up words don’t make us look smarter, but they can detract from the clarity of our message.

A plumber in New York City once wrote to the Federal Bureau of Standards that he had found hydrochloric acid did a good job of cleaning out clogged drains.

The bureau wrote: The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.

The plumber replied he was glad the bureau agreed.

Again, the bureau wrote: We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residue with hydrochloric acid and suggest you use an alternative procedure.

The plumber was happy again that the bureau agreed with him.

Finally, the bureau wrote: Don’t use hydrochloric acid. It eats the hell out of the pipes.

What’s unique about the following passage?

In my business writing classes, I used to ask participants to describe what was unique about these paragraphs. Can you see what the author has done?

Small words can be crisp, brief, terse—go to the point like a knife. They have a charm all their own. They dance, twist, turn, sing. Like sparks in the night, they light the way for the eyes of those who read. They are the grace notes of prose. You know what they say the way you know a day is bright and fair—at first sight. And you find, as you read, that you like the way they say it. Small words are gay. And they can catch large thoughts and hold them up for all to see, like rare stones in rings of gold, or joy in the eyes of a child. Some make you feel, as well as see: the cold deep dark of night, the hot salt string of tears.

Small words move with ease where big words stand still—or worse bog down and get in the way of what you want to say . . .

The above is an excerpt from Joseph Ecclesine’s “Advice to Scientists—in Words of One Syllable,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1965. His advice was to communicate in the clearest, most concise way possible–especially when we are communicating about complex topics. In spite of the years that have passed since Mr. Ecclesine wrote his article, I don’t think much has changed about the best way to communicate, do you?

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Emography: A Change Management Tool to Engage Your Team

Emography is the art of drawing an emotion. It’s a right brain activity that helps teams communicate on a deeper level. When team members first create images of thoughts and feelings, it’s easier for them to talk about difficult topics, resolve conflicts, and identify solutions. This technique is especially effective during organizational change when emotions are running high.

Following a series of acquisitions, Natalie was charged with consolidating three departments into one centralized operation. Her challenge was to retain each of the three leadership teams, maintain a high level of morale during the transition, and identify as many ways to decrease operating expenses as possible. A piece of cake, right? To ensure success, Natalie applied the Three Levels of Communication™.

Level 1 Communication – Intellectual:  People understand the need to change

Natalie met individually with her new leaders and told them how valuable they were to the company. She asked for their help and expertise to build a combined, stronger department that would exemplify the best practices from each of the old departments.

She provided facts and figures to convince these leaders they would have a bright, challenging future–even brighter than if they’d continued to lead their own smaller departments.

The leaders told her how hard they had worked to build best practices over the years. They explained how proud they were of all they’d accomplished and that they were afraid the changes would limit their personal power. When they shared Natalie’s messages, they found their own fear and uncertainty mirrored back to them through the eyes and words of their direct reports.

Natalie understood that all the facts and figures in the world were not going to change how they felt. However, she was just getting started.

Level 2 Communication – Emotional: People buy in and want to support the need for change

The next thing she did was to schedule an offsite. Natalie knew she needed to create a joint experience that would help these leaders feel the power they could achieve through a new, centralized department. She knew that before people could feel the power, they needed to share what they’d already accomplished. She also knew that before they could create a new vision, they had to let go of the old.

So, as part of the offsite, she structured a three-part emography exercise.

  • Part 1:  The first morning, leaders broke into small groups, which represented their original departments. On a flip chart, they drew all the images they could think of to illustrate the accomplishments and culture of their former departments. Then they shared their images and thoughts with the large group. Their new colleagues smiled and said things like, “we need to do that in our new department,” and “what a great idea.” Instead of thinking only about what they wanted to say next, people were listening to each other and considering new ideas.
  • Part 2:  At the end of the day, everyone broke into new groups that mixed leaders from the three departments. The groups drew images that described how they and their direct reports currently felt about the changes they faced as one consolidated department. As each group reported back, they discovered everyone was feeling the same fear, uncertainty, and chaos. That night, over dinner, people talked about how they could work together to keep the best practices from each former team and how to help their direct reports transition. They started to talk about how maybe this consolidation could be a good thing if they learned how to work as a team.
  • Part 3:  Throughout the second day, the leaders identified and prioritized objectives for the coming quarter. At the end of the day, Natalie asked them to mix once more into new groups and create images of how they envisioned the new, centralized department. When each group reported back to the larger group, the energy in the room grew and the offsite culminated in commitments from each to build the strongest department they could.

Level 3 Communication – Practical:  People know how to make a personal contribution

The offsite was even more successful than Natalie had hoped. Even so, she knew that when everyone went back to face their daily work, the excitement and commitment could dissipate if the processes and tools did not exist to reinforce the right behavior and actions.

So, she and her leaders created a plan to communicate what needed to happen, why, when it needed to happen, and who was involved. They also provided a variety of ongoing experiences for everyone, kept priorities and progress visible, and celebrated progress against plan.

In the end, this team saved $8M in operating expenses. Morale was high, and people were proud to be part of the new team.

Emography is a useful tool. We often think in words rather than images, and language can be limiting. When we draw representations of what we’re feeling, we can express through metaphor and image what we may not be able to express with words alone. Please contact me if you would like to learn more about how to use Emography with your own team.

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