The Great Wall To Building Real Employee Commitment

My wife and I began 2013 with a great trip to see friends in Hong Kong and Beijing. While we saw many amazing sights in our travels, we were really impressed with a visit to the Great Wall of China. The good news was that in early January there are very few visitors, so we really got a chance to appreciate it virtually alone. The bad news was that it was 9 degrees F (-13 degree C) with about a 30-50 MPH winter wind, so we listened very intently to our guide and then escaped to ask more questions inside a much warmer restaurant nearby.

The Great Wall’s history is fascinating. The 5500 mile (8850 km) sections of the Great Wall near Beijing were renovated during the Ming dynasty, whose leaders spent a century strengthening and extending the Wall to the Yellow Sea. The previous ramparts, which were made of stones, packed earth and wood, were covered by Ming builders with bricks. They built crenellations to protect archers, widened the Wall so it could accommodate five horses abreast, and added many watchtowers. A system of beacons lit from tower to tower ensured that enemy troop movements were swiftly relayed to headquarters.

Despite such defensive features, the Great Wall failed in its purpose of keeping out invaders. It was breached several times, notably by the armies of Genghis Khan in 1215 and by Manchu troops in 1644. I began to think of the irony of building a wall of that size, durability and expense, all planned on the assumption that it would protect the Chinese from invading hordes.

2013 Trends

Since returning from China, 2013 has been a very busy year for G Burns and Associates. Last year we worked in or visited 15 countries and were fortunate enough to work on four big transformation projects for top tier companies. This year there has been a strong demand in the US by large, growing global companies (who have acquired or are about to acquire some competitors and are looking to break from the pack) for significant increases in executive coaching and leadership team effectiveness. We’ve evolved our programs based on some significant insights we gained last year.

Much like the Chinese discovered after their wall was breached, we are seeing these top companies begin to question and address their basic, underlying assumptions of their teams and cultures in an ever changing business and economic landscape.

As Marshall Mc Luhan once said,

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their usefulness.”

Companies are trying some new employee commitment strategies, after 5 years of lukewarm results with:

  • Employee engagement efforts (For companies that didn’t postpone them for budgetary reasons, their results, still all too often, regress to the mean and the action plans sound suspiciously like last year’s.)
  • New Wave triage employee development classes (Based on topics like “Authenticity”, “Leading in Uncertain Times” and “Resilience” which by their very nature suggest that their leaders haven’t been telling them the truth or know where they are headed, and perhaps their employees just need to learn to deal with it?)
  • And even more ineffective Change Management communication techniques (Are all the recycled organization announcements, with no follow up manager and employee dialogues, other than canned town halls with the “It is what it is – let’s get back to work.” messages really making a difference?).

The Top Four Unconscious Things That May Be Preventing Your Employees From Committing to Your Company

1. Unconscious actions based on Habits – According to Charles Duhigg in his excellent “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What in Life and Business”, one paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits . . . Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” Habits across a company become organizational routines which can be very powerful or destructive depending on how you shape them.

  • 80% of workers feel stress on the job,
  • Nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their coworkers need such help;
  • 14% of respondents had felt like striking a coworker in the past year, but didn't;
  • 25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress,
  • 10% are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent;
  • 9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace and
  • 18% had experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

3. Unwillingness to change our beliefs because of Motivated Reasoning - In the book “All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results”, the authors, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, point out that we all engage in what is called motivated reasoning. “Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that endorses what they already believe,” said one academic, Steve Hoffman. Our mistaken belief is not caused by the absence of correct information, but by our tendency to seek out and put our faith in information that supports the belief we’re predisposed to. We have a deep, powerful unwillingness to “believe contradictory information or change our opinions, and will even engage in elaborate rationalizations to provide alternative explanations for the solid evidence against what we’d thought.” Employee comments such as the “Yeah, buts” and “I can still have my opinion, can’t I?” are good indicators of this.

4. Unwillingness to examine or explore problems based our own underlying assumptions – In the book “Immunity to Change: How to Unlock the Potential in Yourself and in Your Organization”, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey say that one of the real conundrums to commitment is that we genuinely want to succeed with our goals, but often are not able to because of competing, hidden commitments and underlying assumptions that have the resulting effect of “having a foot on the gas and a foot on the brake”. These hidden commitments are part of a self protective, but sometimes self defeating “anxiety management system” that they call the “Immunity to Change”

Three Best Practice Strategies You Can Use to Increase Employee Commitment

1. Get some expert help to recognize and address the unconscious effects of Stress and Habits – We find that certified coaches and facilitators with the right skill sets can be very effective at helping employees increase self awareness in this area. Specifically, we work with individuals and teams to understand what triggers their stress, what their unconscious behaviors look like, how can they rebalance faster, and then most importantly, what they learn about themselves in the immediate aftermath of “out of character” or dysfunctional incidents. Facilitators with a strong organization development background can also help you identify and fix non productive habits or organizational routines. Here are a couple of assessments that we have found very effective:

  • The Hogan Leadership Series is very good for one on one coaching, especially with managers who have a high risk of derailment.
  • The Neethling Brain Instrument is an excellent neuroscience based assessment on thinking preferences, especially for larger groups or those who are looking for a simple, yet very accurate team building tool.
  • The Birkman Method is one of the best at helping employees become more aware of their usual behaviors, underlying needs and stress behaviors among other things

2. Challenge employee beliefs in a positive, constructive way to make the “Unsaid, Said” (J. Kilburn) – Too often “town halls” don’t give employees a chance to engage in meaningful two way dialogue. We worked with a CEO last year who really got in the trenches with his managers. He personally kicked off every transformation session with an unscripted 90 minute “press conference” where he explained why the change in vision and organization alignment was critical and then spent significant time inviting questions and having a real dialogue with his managers. They also had very well orchestrated senior manager support. At least two of his well prepared directs participated in every session to answer tough questions in a supportive way during the sessions. The CEO then came back at the conclusion and asked for insights and questions again. Finally, they followed up every few months with Webexes to see what progress was being made as well as to identify and address ongoing concerns. All in all, it was one of the best executed transformation initiatives we saw in 2012. The CEO invited and modeled honest dialogue and changed his organization.

3. Focus on Understanding the “Immunity to Change” and execute “One Big Thing” Commitments – We’ve used the “Immunity to Change” process successfully with audiences ranging from research scientists to technologists to principals to global managers to CEO’s and their senior teams. It’s worth the time and investment to leverage this process which is all about understanding the hidden things and big assumptions that hold you back from going “All In” on your commitments. The “One Big Thing Commitment” exercise really works because it helps employees visualize very specific, well thought out, incremental changes that lead to substantial, achievable results

As the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell said,

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.”

As leaders, we can only expect to gain commitment in 2013, when we are willing to question our assumptions and “find out” what’s really going on with our employees.

For a confidential discussion about your transformation needs, please contact us at the address below or click the Contact Us button below.

G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.